The TARDIS goes a little off-course while taking Clara home after an adventure, landing in Bristol. Soon after landing, Clara notices the TARDIS door has shrunk. They go outside only to find that the entire TARDIS exterior has become smaller. The Doctor goes back inside to find out what’s tampering with the TARDIS dimensions, and sends Clara to scout around for clues in the area. She returns to find the TARDIS has shrunk even more. Stuck inside the miniature ship that’s slowly losing power, the Doctor gives Clara his sonic screwdriver and psychic paper, trusting her to be his eyes and ears as they investigate the source of the problem. It seems it’s not just the TARDIS that’s having dimensional issues. Something is traveling through the walls, sucking the third dimension from anyone or anything that gets too close. Can Clara help the Doctor stop these creatures, “The Boneless,” and their experiments on three-dimensional people, before they take over the whole of Bristol, England, the world…?
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
This season is really coming up with the goods as far as top-notch scripts and dark, atmospheric story-telling goes. The idea behind “The Boneless,” 2-dimensional entities that flatten and experiment on 3-dimensional entities, is unique at least to Doctor Who, if not to sci-fi. And while we’ve had a shrunken TARDIS before (see “Logopolis”), we’ve not seen it small enough to be carried in a handbag (with the exception of “Planet of Giants” perhaps). Not only did this help to amplify the frustration, but it gave Clara an opportunity to take the lead and appreciate what it means to be the Doctor, making the impossible decisions, and trying to hold out hope when all seems hopeless.
It was interesting to see Clara put into the Doctor’s shoes and finding herself behaving just like the Doctor, trying to stop herself asking “what would the Doctor do?” but ending up saying and doing exactly what he would. And at the end, the Doctor bemoans the fact that one of the human survivors is not a particularly nice person. His view that this person didn’t deserve to make it out alive was, I thought, very harsh, but not inconsistent with Capaldi’s Doctor. When he tells Clara that “goodness” had nothing to do with her performance as the Doctor, I can understand what he meant. This, of course, continues one of the season’s themes: “Am I a good man?”
I’m not sure there’s anything I can really complain about this week. The story was good, the acting was excellent (as always–from Capaldi down to the supporting cast), Clara didn’t go rushing off home, it didn’t dive into highly controversial issues, the CGI was well done… and The Boneless were actually bad! If it wasn’t for the fact that this season of Doctor Who was written and filmed months ago, I might begin to suspect that Steven Moffat is reading my blog. At last! An evil monster, who is truly up to no good, and isn’t just misunderstood. The Doctor tried to reason with them but to no avail; he had to blast them back to their own dimension and hope some survived.
The Doctor-Clara-Danny situation gets more interesting as Clara lies to Danny about where she is, and the Doctor knows that Clara lied to both Danny and the Doctor so she could keep traveling in the TARDIS. With only three episodes to go, things are going to come to a head soon, and I expect we’ll see Danny for who he really is… or not, if I’m wrong about him. And then we have the “Promised Land” mystery, and Missy saying that she did a good job choosing Clara. What’s that about? And did you notice that when the TARDIS is in “siege mode” it looks like the Pandorica from Season 5? Do you suppose there’s any significance to that?
Talk to me fellow Whovians! What did you think of “Flatline”? Any thoughts on Danny, Missy, or the Pandorica TARDIS?
7 And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: “Thus saith the Holy One, the True One, the One who has the key of David, the One opening and no-one will close, and closing and no-one opens. 8 I know your works (behold I have placed before you an opened door that no-one is able to close) that you have little power yet you kept my word and you did not deny my name. 9 Behold I will give some of the synagogue of Satan–of those calling themselves to be Jews, but they are not, but they are lying–behold I will make them so that they will come and they will bow down before your feet and know that I myself have loved you.
This week we started looking at the Lord’s letter to the church in Philadelphia. Once again, time flew by and we only got through the first three verses, so rather than rush to the end, we’re splitting this study over two sessions. As with the other churches, the church in Philadelphia is undergoing persecution of some kind. While not explicitly stated, I think it’s fair to assume they are feeling the pressure of the pagan culture in which they live–there were few “Christian-friendly” places in the Roman Empire at this time. Also, the mention of a “synagogue of Satan” points to attacks from the Jewish community in the area. As with the church in Smyrna, they were probably experiencing hostility from the local synagogue, perhaps even to the point of being “ratted out” to the local authorities. In light of all this, Jesus writes them a letter of encouragement.
The ancient city of Philadelphia was about 28 miles south-east of Sardis, and about 60 miles east of Smyrna. The area around the city was very fertile with rich volcanic soil that was a cornerstone of their economy. However, the city had also experienced a number of earthquakes, some devastating. One in particular, in 17 AD, had flattened Philadelphia along with twelve other cities.
In verse 7, Jesus presents himself to the church as “the Holy One, the True One.” Back in 1:5 John described Jesus as the “faithful witness”–the one who faithfully represented and testified of the Father. Jesus was true to his calling, and true in all he said and did with regard to God. And, especially in contrast to the “false Jews” of verse 9, Jesus is the “real deal”–he’s genuine, and can be taken at his word. And he is, of course, holy, not only in the sense that he was set apart by God the Father for a specific role in salvation history, but also in the sense that he is unlike the rest of humanity. He is the God-man, perfect and sinless in all his thoughts, words, and actions. To this struggling group of believers who were trying to please the Lord with their witness and conduct within a hostile environment, I think it would encourage them to see Jesus, one who was also persecuted, as their example of holiness and fidelity. Despite all Jesus endured, he remained holy and true; the Philadelphians can draw strength from this as they strive to persevere.
Interestingly, the phrase “holy and true” crops up again in Revelation 6:10 where the saints cry out to God, referring to Him as “the Holy and True.” It’s a phrase Isaiah also uses of God, so it certainly has divine connotations. The fact that Jesus would use this same phrase of himself puts the lie to the claim often made that Jesus never said he was God.
Jesus also says that he has the “key of David.” In 1:18 he said that he has the “keys of death and Hades,” which pointed to his sovereignty not only over when someone dies, but what happens to them after death (another indication of Jesus’ exalted status–no mere prophet would claim such power). It would comfort the persecuted believer to know that the one in whom he has placed his trust, and even his life, is indeed the one who has the ultimate say in such matters. But this is a singular “key” and it is ascribed to David. While it’s a different key, the meaning is connected. In Isaiah 22:15-25, we read of God’s appointment of Eliakim as steward of the household, and one who would hold the key of David. In that capacity, he would be responsible for who enters the sanctuary, and would have charge of the general administration of the kingdom of Judah. Christ is, of course, more than a steward–he is the fulfillment of David, and his kingdom is the fulfillment of kingdom of Judah (i.e., as Judah consisted of God’s faithful, so the church consists of those who are truly the Lord’s). The key of David Jesus holds does not, therefore, grant admission to an earthly sanctuary nor does it signify administration of an earthly kingdom. Rather it grants admission to the presence of God in eternity. So this is yet another affirmation of Christ’s sovereign control over life, death, and the destiny of every soul. Perhaps the Philadelphian Jews were telling the Christians they have no claim upon heaven because they are following Christ, and in response Jesus tells the Philadelphian church that such things are within his power to determine. Since it is only in Christ one can be received into God’s presence, then those who are faithful to him have nothing to worry about. And if Jesus has opened the door to receive the Philadelphian Christians, no-one can close that door on them. Conversely, if Jesus has closed the door on the “synagogue of Satan,” then no-one can open the door for them.
We then come to the point in the letter where Jesus usually lists the faults of the church. However, as with the church in Smyrna, Jesus has nothing against them. Indeed, of all seven churches these two churches stand out as ones that seem to be doing right. We should note, however, that this doesn’t exempt them from suffering and persecution. There is an interesting parenthetical comment in verse 8–at least I put it in parentheses since that seems to me the best way to make sense of the Greek; other translations may differ. Jesus wants the church to know right up front that he has put before them an “open door.” From what he just said in the previous verse, I would take this to mean that they can be secure in their salvation, despite the fact that they have “little power.” They might be a small church, and/or a church with very limited resources and influence. Perhaps they feel beaten down, weak, and helpless against the culture in which they live. Nevertheless, their faithfulness to Christ’s word and his name have demonstrated that they are truly his people. Just as Jesus was a faithful witness, so these Christians are maintaining a faithful witness of Christ despite the cost.
Their witness will not be in vain: the Lord will cause some of the “synagogue of Satan” to bow down to the Christians and recognize who they are before God. I take this as a long way around saying that they will be saved. This is the power of a faithful church, even when it’s weak in human terms. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say he’ll persuade some of these Jews to come to the Philadelphia church, nor will he entice them, or give them a choice hoping they’ll do the right thing. He says he will make them; divine will shall overcome the sinful desires of these “false Jews.” Their hard hearts will be softened by the Spirit of God, and they will recognize the love of God in these helpless believers. The verb translated “bow down” here (Greek proskuneô) is often used in terms of worship, but not always. The context here demands the sense of humility, submission, and giving honor: a recognition that the love of God is upon the Philadelphian Christians.
There is a parallel with verse 9 in Isaiah 60:10-14, except in Isaiah the Lord is speaking to Israel. The irony is that in Isaiah, the nations will bow down to Israel, and here, people from the synagogue take the place of “the nations” bowing down to the true Israel, the church. We’ll see Isaiah 60:11 referenced again in Revelation 21:25-26 where the nations enter into the new Jerusalem, further underscoring this point.
We’ll pick up at verse 10 next time…
From spring through fall we tend to see a lot of lizards round our neck of the woods. They enjoy climbing up the outside of the doors, and some even make it inside the house, providing a great source of entertainment for the cats. And for the humans too, especially since the cats don’t seem to understand that as long as the lizard stays outside on the screen in front of the door, there’s no way on God’s green earth they will ever catch it. Case in point:
Crap he got away!
Pictures of cats, of course! It seems everyone posts cat pictures at some point in the life of their blog–some at many points. I don’t think I’ve posted one in the three years this blog’s been active.
And then, the other day, my youngest children gave Sam, the newest feline addition to our household, a bath. He’s just a kitten so this was either going to be a cool novelty, or the stuff of nightmares. What do you think: cats and water?
Is that Sam’s opinion of the bath, his opinion of me taking a picture of him with his ginger fur all mussed up, or both?
Your guess and appropriate captions welcome!
It seems Clara has calmed down since the end of the last episode and has told the Doctor she’s done traveling with him. But she doesn’t want to end their time together on a sour note, so she agrees to “one last hurrah.” For her final TARDIS journey, the Doctor takes Clara for a trip on the Orient Express–not the original, but an exact replica that flies passengers through space. Clara’s hopes for a peaceful ride are dashed when people start dropping dead. There’s talk of an ancient superstition: a mummy who can only be seen by the person he’s about to kill, and once they see him, they only have sixty-six seconds to live. The Doctor’s interest is piqued, and then made mandatory by the train-ship’s computer, Gus. He has assembled the best minds around to work out how to capture this creature, and they need to hurry up before it kills them all…
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
Despite some minor quibbles, this was another excellent Who episode. The BBC always does a great job with period drama, so recreating the 1920s vibe was a no-brainer that they pulled off with style. There’s so much in this episode to call out for praise: the performances by all the main characters (Frank Skinner is relatively unknown here the US–okay, I’ve been here over 20 years and I’d never heard of him–but he was a great side-kick to the Doctor), the design of the train-ship, showing the 66-second count-down on screen to amp-up the drama, and the mummy himself, which was another triumph of design and execution. I loved that the Doctor used the period cigarette case to hold jelly babies. And I really hoped someone (preferably the Doctor) would say “are you my mummy?”–and I wasn’t disappointed. That’s the third time the line’s been used (see “The Empty Child” and “The Poison Sky” for the previous two), and it never gets old!
While I’ve liked Capaldi’s tougher-gruffer Doctor, I was beginning to wonder if maybe it was going too far. The First Doctor was a crotchety old man, but he had a heart and he wasn’t above showing how much he really cared for his companions. In this episode, the Doctor seemed to show his compassion in taking a risk that could have cost him his life at the expense of someone else. We need to see that even from this dark Doctor, just to remind us that the other Doctors are all in there too.
The minor quibbles? First, yet again, we have a monster that’s not really a monster–he’s just an ancient soldier trapped into thinking he’s still fighting a war, waiting for the enemy to declare surrender. When the Doctor figures this out, he cries “I surrender” at the last minute, and the mummy salutes and dies. All very nice and heart-warming, but a bit anticlimactic. This “misunderstood bad-guy” theme seems to be popular this season, and it’s all a bit too postmodern for my taste. Even the Dalek in the second story was a “good” Dalek! Maybe it’s a symptom of the culture, but what happened to the classic “good vs. evil” confrontations? I’m reminded of the Second Doctor’s speech in “The Moonbase”: ” There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought.” I think we’re losing sight of that with these stories. Right now, the Twelfth Doctor would say: ” There are some corners of the universe which contain beings that have very different values than us. Beings which appear to act against our preconceptions of what’s right and wrong. They must be understood.” That might go down well in certain parts of modern society, but, frankly, it doesn’t make for consistently good drama.
Other quibbles? Clara’s domestics, and the part-time TARDIS traveling… still happening… say no more…
So what’s up with Danny and Clara now? That call at the end was an interesting development. Danny was checking in to make sure Clara was okay and “that was it.” She gets off the phone and tells the Doctor Danny’s okay with them traveling together, and she doesn’t really want to end her time with him. So, after lying to Danny about the Doctor, she finally told him the truth, and, last week, kept her word by telling Danny when the Doctor pushed her too far. Now, she has lied to Danny about being done with the Doctor, and lied to the Doctor that Danny’s okay with things. Further, since when was her traveling with the Doctor up to Danny? It was Clara who wanted to call it quits, so why does she say it’s okay to carry on because Danny said so? As I’ve said before, I think something’s up with Danny–he’s not all that he appears to be. He’s been passive-aggressively trying to drive a wedge between Clara and the Doctor. Maybe Clara’s becoming wise to that and is choosing sides? And the Doctor seems blissfully ignorant of this whole situation, but is he really?
Your turn! What did you love and/or hate about this episode? Were you heart-warmed or disappointed by the resolution? Do you want more evil baddies or are you happy with the misunderstood foes? And what do you think’s going on with Danny? Let’s discuss in the comments!
4 “But you have a few names in Sardis that have not defiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white [garments], for they are worthy. 5 The one who overcomes in this way will be clothed in white garments and I shall by no means wipe his name out of the Book of Life, and I shall confess his name before my Father and before His angels. 6 The one having an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Last Sunday we ran out of time in our study of Christ’s letter to the church in Sardis and only got through the first three verses. Rather than hurry to the end, we decided to finish up this week. And it’s just as well we did since our discussion of these last three verses took up all our time.
We started with a brief re-cap of the situation in Sardis. This is a church with a “name,” or reputation for being alive–an active church with a lot going on. But in Christ’s estimation, it’s a dead church. They’ve lost sight of the gospel message that was given to them, and all the life-giving truths that had been proclaimed to them. The church in Sardis had become worldly, compromising with the pagan culture in order to “get along” and not cause trouble, rather than being bold in their proclamation of Christ. Jesus calls on the church to remember these foundational truths, hold on to them, and repent.
But there is hope for the church: a small group that haven’t compromised and are remaining faithful to Christ. These “have not defiled their garments”–i.e., they haven’t participated in the sin of the rest of the church. Revelation 14:4 uses similar language speaking of the 144,000 who have not “defiled” themselves “with women.” This is a pretty explicit reference to adultery, and/or some form of sexual misconduct, and while that might be true of the Sardis church, I think the general spiritual adultery of which the church is clearly guilty is more significant. Indeed, one could say that any physical adultery going on would have its foundation in a prior spiritual adultery. In order to so easily and consistently forsake the way of life to which Christ calls us, one must first forsake the lordship of Christ.
Thankfully for the Sardis church, there are some who remain “pure.” We noted how Christ refers to these people as “names,” and contrasted this with the “name” the rest of the church claimed to have. The church may have a glowing reputation in the world, but before Christ the church is dead, except for these few. They have a reputation, and its one that earns the Lord’s commendation. They will “walk” with Christ in “white garments.” White is symbolic of righteousness and purity, and, as we see in Revelation 7, the robes of the righteous are white because they have been “washed in the blood of the Lamb.” It is the blood of Christ sacrificed for them that purifies them, not their own works or anything within them. However, having been dressed in white robes, they are to walk as those worthy of the robes. And they are, in part because their willingness to suffer for Christ shows that they are, indeed, truly his. Revelation 5:9 says that Jesus is “worthy” because he was slain. The persecution he endured on behalf of his people demonstrated his worthiness. And in a similar way, the persecution these Christians suffer demonstrate their worthiness to wear white robes and walk with the Lord (see also Revelation 6:9-11).
In verse 5, Christ delivers three promises to those who overcome:
- They shall be clothed in white garments. The verb in Greek could be translated as either passive or “middle”–either “they shall be clothed,” or “they shall clothe themselves” (note: the “middle” voice isn’t always reflexive, but it would be in this context). While the second option is a legitimate translation, it flies in the face of everything we’ve been told to this point (both in Revelation and the rest of the New Testament) regarding Christ as the author of our faith, and the fact that it is his work, not ours, that makes us worthy (e.g. John 6:44; Rev 1:18). To say we clothe ourselves in white would be to say that we are able to make ourselves worthy, which we are not.
- Christ will not erase their names from “the Book of Life.” The phrase “Book of Life” is used five times in Revelation (13:8, 17:8, 20:12 and 15, 21:27). We noted that nowhere does it say anything about a future action of Christ writing names in the Book of Life. Names have been written in there, and his promise here is not to add their names, but not to erase them. The clear implication is that their names are already in the Book. They don’t have to do anything to be added–they’re there already. Daniel 7:10 speaks of a book of judgment where the names of the condemned are written. Daniel 12:1 makes reference to a book of the redeemed, which is probably the same as our Book of Life in this verse. Similar books are mentioned in Revelation 20:12-15, one of life for the redeemed, and one of judgment for the condemned. This is important to note since this means that no-one destined for judgment would be written in the Book of Life since there’s a separate book for them, and nowhere does Scripture talk about names being transferred from book to book. If their names couldn’t be erased, why would Christ promise not to erase them? Because, in saying that he will never erase their names, he is telling them firstly that their names are already in the Book of Life, and secondly that their salvation is secure in him. He’s giving them assurance and hope that will sustain them in these extremely difficult times.
- Jesus will confess their names before the Father and His angels. This brings to mind Luke 12:8, where Jesus says he will confess those who confess him and deny those who deny him. In the Luke passage, Jesus is telling his disciples not to fear the authorities, and to be bold in their proclamation of him. I think this gives further evidence of the problem in Sardis: the church is ashamed of Christ, and are willing to deny him out of a fear of men. The faithful few are not ashamed of the gospel, and for this reason their names will resound in heaven.
For those that have problems with Christ’s deity, the second and third promises deserve closer attention. If Christ is merely a prophet, or a good man, where did he get authority to say whose name is in the Book of Life? Clearly, if he could (hypothetically) erase a name from that book, the implication is that he is the keeper of the book and the one who controls which names are in there and which are not. And if Jesus is not divine, then why does his confession of names before the Father and the angels matter any more than any other prophet or good man? The fact is, Jesus the God-man, God incarnate, Second Person of the Trinity, holds our salvation in his hands. And for those who think all roads lead to God, notice that it is Christ who declares the names of the righteous before the Father, not Muhammad, or Buddha, or Mary, or anyone else. And it is only by wearing robes made white by his blood that we can be declared righteous and worthy.
“Let him who has an ear let him hear…” The letter finishes with a reminder that this is not just for the church in Sardis. Someone asked whether these letters would have been delivered individually to each of the seven churches. As far as I’m aware, there’s no evidence to suggest that these letters were ever separated from the book of Revelation. In all likelihood, John delivered Revelation in its entirety to each of these seven churches, so they would all have read what Christ says to each of them. Revelation was then copied and transmitted to the rest of the church across the world, where the voice of the Spirit speaking to the churches was clearly heard. Indeed, our discussion of what Christ said to Sardis and how it relates to us today shows how very relevant these words are, even though we are separated from this church by thousands of miles and two thousand years.
Next time: the letter to the church in Philadelphia…
Courtney Woods, the Coal Hill student who threw up in the TARDIS last episode, needs to feel special. Rather than comply with Clara’s demand that the Doctor tell her she’s special, the Doctor wants to make her special: the first woman on the moon. As one might expect, things don’t go exactly to plan. They arrive in a Space Shuttle about to crash land on the moon in the year 2049. The TARDIS crew survive the crash only to find they’ve inadvertently joined a suicide mission from Earth to destroy the moon. Captain Lundvik, leader of the mission, explains that the future of mankind is under threat from freak tides. Something’s wrong with the moon, and they believe the only way to solve it is to blow it up. But as they investigate, they find the problem is a lot bigger than they expected, and the decision to kill the moon might carry very grave consequences…
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
It seems Steven Moffat told episode writer Peter Harness to “Hinchcliffe the s*** out of it for the first half.” Philip Hinchcliffe produced Doctor Who from 1974-1977, a period commonly considered a golden era of the classic series, when episodes pushed the limit on how far they could scare children during Saturday tea-time. Harness certainly took Moffat’s words to heart. The first half of the story had all the creeps and suspense of those classic stories, with the added benefit of better effects and moodier lighting. And the effects were particularly impressive. From turning an already moon-like Lanzarote into a convincing lunar landscape, to the spider-germs that were a combination of CGI and rubber models. Spiders are notoriously hard to recreate, and the effects team out-did themselves with these.
I must also commend the acting on this episode. Capaldi and Coleman put in some of their best Who performances to date, and even young Ellis George who played 15-year-old Courtney did a spectacular job, holding her own among an intimidating list of co-stars. She has a very bright acting future, I’m sure.
And perhaps… perhaps perhaps perhaps the ending to this episode will draw the domestics to a close. I’ve said enough about that over the past couple of reviews, so I’ll leave it there.
The one thing I wasn’t comfortable with was actually quite a major plot point: i.e., that the moon is in fact a giant egg. In terms of the story it worked, and it provided a nice, if unexpected (which isn’t a bad thing), explanation for everything that was happening (as well as a very interesting moral dilemma). I think what caused me discomfort is the fact that Doctor Who usually doesn’t mess with conventional science. Gravity is gravity, the sun is a star, and the Earth is everything we’ve known it to be. Sure, they’ve introduced a twin planet for Earth, which the First Doctor allowed to melt trying to stop a Cyberman invasion. I guess what troubles me is that it goes against one of the show’s original concepts: use the space-time adventure to teach science and history. “The moon is really a giant egg” sort of flies in the face of that. But like Clara’s soap opera non-TARDIS life, it’s not a show-stopper, and certainly didn’t stop me enjoying the episode.
A final thought: Is Moffat messing with our heads? He seemed to be setting us up for Danny to join the TARDIS team, but now the Doctor’s taking Courtney along with Clara. Maybe that’s only for one episode… or maybe not. Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter and first companion was also 15 when we met her. And is Clara leaving, or was she just speaking in anger (as Danny said) and we’ll be seeing her again? I wouldn’t be surprised if Moff’s doing everything he can to put out misinformation and misguide “the Internet” as much as possible. I can understand this. As many leaks and spoilers that have appeared online, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s waging war with the web. So who knows what’s really going on. I guess we’ll just have to keep watching…
What did you think? Were you behind the sofa watching this one? How do you feel about the egg moon? Was this Clara’s last TARDIS trip, or will she and Danny be joining the Doctor again soon? Or would you prefer to see the Doctor and Courtney traveling together instead? I’ve told you my thoughts, now it’s your turn…
1 And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: “Thus saith he who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your works, that you have a name [or reputation] that you are alive, yet you are dead. 2 Be awake and strengthen what remains [or those that remain] that is about to die for I have not found your works completed before my God. 3 Remember, therefore, what you received and heard, and keep and repent. If, then, you do not wake up, I shall come like a thief, and you certainly won’t know at what hour I shall come against you.”
We started with good intentions of getting through the entire letter to the church in Sardis, but we ran out of time and rather than hurrying through the last three verses, I decided to hold those over to next time. So this is “The Letter to Sardis, Part 1.”
The city of Sardis was an illustrious city about 40 miles south-east of Thyatira, and about 45 miles east of Smyrna. Its fame and prosperity can be attributed, at least to some degree, to the fact that it was situated on a number of important trade routes. While only a couple of temples have been discovered, it is believed there were many more back in the first century, dedicated both to the traditional deities, and to Emperors. There was also a significant Jewish presence in the city, and a large synagogue has been uncovered with inscriptions on the wall that indicate it numbered the wealthy and even city officials among its members. Clearly there were far more non-Christians in Smyrna than Christians, and many of them were rich and influential. I daresay being a Christian in Smyrna was as difficult as in the other churches we’ve read about, not only in terms of persecution, but also in terms of being pressured to deny Christ and conform to the world.
The way Jesus describes himself reminds us of the letter to Ephesus where he is has the seven stars. Chapter 1 tells us these represent the seven angels of the churches. In this passage, Jesus also says he has the seven spirits of God. Back in chapter 1, John addressed the book of Revelation to the seven Asian churches from “the one who is and was and is coming, and from the seven spirits which are before his throne.” In our discussion we recognized that the number “7” signifies completeness or fullness, and that the seven spirits were, therefore representative of the Spirit who empowers the whole church for service. This reminder of the work of the Spirit in the church is something the Sardians (Sardinians…? Sardinites…? Sardines…?!) need. As in 1:20, the seven angels, which Christ holds in his right hand, are symbolic of the fact that Christ is Lord of the church. Not only is he the one who, through the Spirit, empowers the church, but he is the final rule and authority of the church.
Jesus says he has seen the works of the church, and that they have a “name.” Just as the city had a reputation, so did the church. “Name” is a buzz word in this letter, and Jesus plays off of it to make a couple of points. In this instance, the Lord points out that they have made a name for themselves as a church that is “alive”–a reputation the church has bought into. Perhaps it’s a reputation they are proud of. What does it mean, though? From the rest of the letter it seems the church has compromised itself into impotence. Maybe they have a large membership and are very active in doing good and showing love to one another, but have forgotten their calling: to be salt and light in the world. A modern equivalent might be a large church with lots of programs and activities, maybe a large youth group that works in the community, or teams of people that visit the sick and elderly, perhaps even a softball league, which has lost sight of the gospel. Sure, they talk about Jesus and invite people to church, but are they willing to stand with Christ and be known as his when doing so may cost financially, or socially? Are they willing to talk to people about the need to repent of sin and cling to Christ as their only hope of salvation? Or have they become so comfortable in their self-sufficiency that they don’t need Christ, and certainly don’t want to risk ruining everything by being like those “fundamentalists” you hear about on the news.
The Lord of the church tells them that while they are famous for being alive, in actual fact they are dead. This seems a bit harsh–as if he’s saying they’re unbelievers! I think Jesus is using hyperbole, or overstatement here to make a point. The fact he offers a remedy in verses 2 and 3 suggest that he is, indeed, using a stark black-white dichotomy to shake the church up. If Jesus had told them they were merely sick, or struggling, that might not have made the impression he wanted to make. It seems Jesus wants to slap them into alertness and push them out of their comfort. Calling them “dead” might just do the trick.
In verse 2, the Lord tells them what they need to do, and in verse 3 he tells them how to do it. First, they need to wake up and strengthen “what remains.” The Greek term is a neuter plural, “those things that remain,” which could apply to works. Perhaps he’s saying that they need to strengthen what good things they are doing by injecting gospel purpose into them. However, the term could also point to the people within the church (the “few names” in verse 4) who have stayed “pure” and “undefiled”–i.e., they have remained true to the gospel and not contaminated themselves with the world. It’s very possible that Jesus is referring to these people, telling the church they need to affirm and strengthen them, not treat them like an odd little cult group. They should let their kind flourish within the church, especially since they are on the verge of dying out. At the moment, the church’s works are lacking in the sight of God, or they are “incomplete” before God. Only by returning to gospel faithfulness can the church and her works be mature, or “complete” before God.
How can the church wake up, strengthen the dying embers of gospel hope within, and be complete before the Lord? Jesus provides the answer to this in a series of imperatives. The fact that he strings together a series of verbs in this way gives a sense of urgency to his words. They also help to make the message he has for the church succinct and clear:
- Remember…: a present tense imperative indicating that they need to continually remember.
- …what you have received…: a perfect tense verb, which says that they received something in the past that has continuing effect into the present–i.e., the gospel message.
- …and heard…: an aorist verb, so it’s something they heard in the past, maybe letters from Paul, sermons, encouraging words, things of that nature designed to stir their hearts to faithfulness.
- …and keep…: another present tense imperative, indicating that not only should they continually remember these things, but they should hold on to them daily, hourly, minute-by-minute, because they are words of life.
- …and repent…: finally, an aorist imperative–they need to repent now. The aorist tense doesn’t make reference to any particular past, present, or future condition–it’s simply an “unbounded” point in time. I think it reminds us that repentance is something we need to do when we recognize sin in our lives, but once we’ve repented, we need to move on. We don’t need to continually repent for that sin (we’ll have plenty more sins to deal with in the future!). It’s been paid for, Christ has forgiven it.
If the church doesn’t heed this warning, Christ says he will come against them like a thief and they most certainly won’t know when that will be (the Greek grammatical construction is one that indicates strong negation). Jesus used the picture of coming like a thief when talking about his Second Coming in Matthew 24:42-44, and also in Revelation 16:15, a verse that has other parallels to this passage. Is he talking here about his Second Coming, or is this a special visitation upon the church in Sardis? Since the other passages use the “thief” imagery in reference to Christ’s Second Coming, and Scripture only speaks of two “comings” of Christ (Bethlehem and the End Times), I think he is warning the church to be prepared for his final return. However, it’s possible that Christ could come against them using the agency of, say, the local authorities. In other words, Christ doesn’t have to come against them personally to fulfill these words, though I’m more convinced this is an “End Times” warning.
But it’s not all bad in the Sardian church… and that’s where we’ll pick up next time.
PS: Speaking of Christians being willing to count the cost of their faith, see this CNN report . Let’s not forget to pray for our persecuted brethren throughout the world. I’m sure the passages we’re studying have particular meaning to them. “To the one who overcomes…”
As the Doctor prepares for his next adventure, he informs Clara that she can’t come with him as he needs to go “deep undercover.” Clara takes this opportunity to get some time in with Danny, especially since Danny’s becoming suspicious about her activities away from school. But Clara’s two worlds are about to collide: the Doctor is posing as a caretaker at Coal Hill School, the school where Clara and Danny are both teachers. How long can Clara keep her time-traveling life from Danny, especially when an alien robot is loose in the school threatening the destruction of everyone on Earth…?
The last time the Doctor went “undercover” he was a sales assistant in a department store (see Season 6’s “Closing Time”). This time around, he’s a caretaker (or “janitor” in the American parlance) and to look the part he has donned the traditional brown coat and he’s carrying a broom. This episode does make much of the comedic situation, especially given the Twelfth Doctor’s inability to act human without looking like an alien trying to act human, and his complete disregard of social skills. It’s hard to pitch comedy correctly for Doctor Who; a certain amount of levity is not inappropriate (and sometimes downright irresistible), but there’s always the danger it can be pushed too far. I think they got it right in this episode. There was enough danger, tension, and drama throughout that the laughs provided some needed relief. I especially liked the Doctor’s reaction when he thought Clara’s boyfriend was the teacher who looked a lot like the Eleventh Doctor.
The opening montage of Clara meeting up with Danny after various escapades in the TARDIS really underscores for me what I don’t like about this setup. I understand what’s happening story-wise, and it’s part of Clara’s arc that she’s living this dual existence that’s going to come to a head in this episode. My issue is that it makes her seem more like the Doctor’s playmate than his companion. They go off on an adventure but he always drops her home in time for tea, or for school, or a date with Danny. You lose the sense of continuity, of a deep friendship forged over years spent traveling together (as with Jamie McCrimmon, Sarah Jane Smith, or Rose Tyler).
As for the Skovox Blitzer, the alien robot bent on destruction, I have to say it felt like a plot device. It was there to provide a threat to the school that would force the Doctor to meet Danny, and give Danny an opportunity to prove himself to the Doctor. The story wasn’t about the Skovox Blitzer. It was about Clara, Danny, and the Doctor. And I suppose that’s okay, but it meant that the majority of the story was about Clara’s near-soap-opera life bouncing between the Doctor and her boyfriend. Again, I suppose that’s okay, but not the stuff of classic Doctor Who.
Finally, the plot thickens with the introduction of “Seb” in the “Afterlife” or “Paradise” or whatever we’re to call it. Despite the names, I’m convinced this isn’t some kind of life-after-death in the traditional sense. Yes, there’s the long white corridor and the light at the end of the tunnel. But I’m sure something else is going on here where these people are being led to believe this is heaven when it’s something very sinister. A cyberman trap still sounds like a good possibility.
Overall, it was an enjoyable episode, but I hope we’ve resolved Clara’s domestic issues and can get back to the Doctor, the TARDIS, and his companion traveling through space and time–the original premise of the show.
What do you think? Did you love the episode or hate it or somewhere in between? Do you like the Clara/Danny/Doctor soap opera, or do you want less of the domestics? And have you revised your theories on “Paradise” after this episode? Share your thoughts in the comments!