“But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy.” Revelation 3:4 NASB
Soiled – As you may have noticed, I rarely comment on verses from the apocalypse of John. The reason is simple. Apocalyptic literature is a genre filled with deliberately opaque symbols, intended to be applicable to many different circumstances. It is literature designed to provide hope, not timetables. Most Christians do not realize that there are literally thousands of pages of apocalyptic writings from the same period as the Book of Revelation. Such literature was common during the last days of the first century. Christian teaching usually ignores these facts in its attempt to press the symbols into contemporary history. This has been happening for more than a thousand years. Each new generation has believers who are convinced that the writings of John’s vision are about their culture. The whole exegetical project surrounding this nonsense makes me steer clear of Revelation, in spite of the fact that it obviously played an important role in the lives of believers during the time it was written.
But sometimes a verse in Revelation deserves comment from an Hebraic perspective.
When John’s vision of the speech of the Anointed One includes a statement about soiled garments, we need to look closely at the implications of such words. Since John writes from an Hebraic point of view, and his work is filled to the brim with symbolic references to the Tanakh and to Jewish practices in the first century, perhaps it is helpful to use this background to examine the meaning of “soiled garments.” The Greek verb is moluno (to defile, to smear with mud or filth – Hebrew tame’). Scholars suggest that this word might have a root in the Greek word for black ink. But we don’t have to look too far to understand what it would mean in Hebrew. To have defiled garments means that I cannot participate in worship at the Temple. Unlike Christian commentary explanations, defilement does not necessarily mean moral sins. In Hebraic thought, there are two kinds of defilement: moral and ritual. Certainly moral sins defile, but such defilement is often not visible to anyone but God. However, some kinds of ritual defilement are physically obvious. Menstruation is one such defilement. It is not sinful, but it is ritual defilement nonetheless. Physical blemishes can defile. Contact with the dead defiles. Contact with certain bodily fluids defiles. Giving birth defiles. Obviously, none of these normal human processes are sins. To suggest that this statement in John’s vision is concerned with moral impurity such as adultery and idolatry is to ignore that obvious connection between outward physical impurity and worship.
Why should we pay any attention to this relatively obscure text? Because once we realize that it includes ritual purity (and perhaps only ritual impurity), we must acknowledge that at the time it was written ritual purity still played a role in the life of the community. Since Revelation was written after the destruction of the Temple, references to ritual purity must mean that the believing community still practiced Torah observance. Why else would they be concerned about ritual purity? Why else would the statement contain a reference to making themselves “worthy?” Ritual purity is something I do, not something that is granted to me. John’s vision of the Lord’s proclamation indicates that worship still included concern with Jewish ritual practice. The community was still expected to walk in a certain way, a way revealed to Moses. From beginning to end, the message of the Tanakh hasn’t changed. It’s still about a way of life, a code of conduct, an adoption of a God-given constitution.
Topical Index: soiled, defiled, moluno, tame’, Revelation 3:4