Revelation 8 God’s Action Unsealed

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Revelation 8: 1-5 The Final Seal

1 When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 2 And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.

3 Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne. 4 And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. 5 Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth; and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.

The seventh seal is open, and the content of the scroll can now be revealed. We enter a period of silence. With the sixth seal the inhabitants of the earth realize that God is about to act and now even in heaven the praise of the countless multitude is interrupted. The silence may reflect a type of silent reverence toward God or the message that has just been unsealed, or it may provide a space where the prayers of the saints can come before God so that God may hear the oppression of God’s people as God did in Exodus. Speech and song may stop but action continues as the seven angels before the throne are handed trumpets and a different angel offers up incense and prayers.

The seven angels may be the seven archangels listed in 1 Enoch 20: 1, a part of the Jewish Pseudepigrapha (a collection of works that were not included in the canon of scripture). Yet, while many are fascinated by attempting to catalogue the ranks of the angels of heaven only Michael will be named in Revelation and while these angels have a role to play within Revelation as those called to blow the trumpets which enact judgment we have no further information on their identity or role beyond this action.

While the seven angels and the trumpets given to them will form the progression of the next cycle of Revelation, the angel with the censer occupies the central role in this pivotal scene. When the fifth seal was opened in Revelation 6: 9-11 the ones slaughtered for their testimony called out to their God for judgment and for their blood to be avenged. Now as this angel occupying a priestly role by offering incense offered up with the prayers of the saints. This action echoes the poetic language of Psalm 141:

Let my prayers be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. (Psalm 141:2)

Incense in the tabernacle or temple was burned to honor God and to protect the priest from being harmed by the divine presence of God. John sees the angel’s offering of incense and prayer rise up before God. The scene ends with the prayers going up and fire coming down. The fire which is taken from the altar is thrown to earth and it is received as thunder, lightning and an earthquake, all signs of divine judgment in the ancient world.

Revelation 8: 6-13 The First Four Trumpets

6 Now the seven angels who had the seven trumpets made ready to blow them.

7 The first angel blew his trumpet, and there came hail and fire, mixed with blood, and they were hurled to the earth; and a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up.

8 The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea. 9 A third of the sea became blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.

10 The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. 11 The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many died from the water, because it was made bitter.

12 The fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of their light was darkened; a third of the day was kept from shining, and likewise the night.

13 Then I looked, and I heard an eagle crying with a loud voice as it flew in midheaven, “Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!”

The trumpets begin a new cycle of visions of destruction and judgment. While I view the seals as a prelude illuminating the world that the content of the scroll, which is revealed symbolically through the rest of the book, will address. With the trumpets we see God’s action in response to the prayers that have been lifted up and the cries of those whose blood has been shed. Like in Exodus 3: 7, the LORD has observed the misery of God’s people and God’s response is a combination of action and sending Moses as a witness.

In the cycle of the trumpets and cycle of the bowls in Revelation 16 there are similarities with the plagues in Exodus 7-12. While the similarities are closer with Revelation 16 they are worth noting here in addition to Psalm 78 and 105 which also echo the plagues on Egypt:

Exodus 7-12 Psalm 78 Psalm 105 Revelation 8-9 (Trumpets) Revelation 16 (bowls)
River Changes to blood (7: 14-25)  78:44 105: 29 Rivers become bitter, seas turn to blood (8: 8-11) Sea changes to blood (16:3)
Frogs (8: 1-15) 78:45 105:30   Froglike Spirits (16: 12-16)
Gnats (8:16-19)   105:31    
Flies (8: 23-32) 78:45 105:31    
Cattle, disease (9: 1-7) Cattle are given to hail (combining 5 &7) 78:48      
Sores (9: 8-12)       Painful sores (16:2)
Hail, fire, thunder (9: 13-35) 78:48 105:32 Hail and Fire mixed with blood (8:7) Huge hailstones (16: 21)
Locusts (10: 1-20) 78:46 105: 34-35 ‘Demonic Locusts’ (9:1-11)  
Darkness (10:21-29)   105:28 1/3 of lights in sky darkened (8: 12) Darkness over kingdom of beast (16: 10-11)
Death, Destroying angel (12: 29-32) 78:51 105:36 1/3 of humankind killed (9: 13-19)  

See similar chart in Craig Koester’s Revelation. (Koester, 2014, p. 446)

These cycles of judgment have been both fascinating and terrifying to Christians. Some early Christians, like Marcion, a second century church leader who was later declared to be a heretic, couldn’t reconcile the God of love that Jesus testified to with this God who judges.  Yet, Christians throughout history have been troubled by the violent language of Revelation. Many traditions, including my own, rarely use this book and I know in discussions with people who have been a part of my walking through the book with them that many had been afraid to read Revelation. Even well-meaning scholars may shy away or attempt to reframe the language of Revelation in a less harsh way. For example: Richard B. Hays, a scholar I respect greatly, attempting to interpret Revelation in light of the rest of the New Testament can state:

One of the major hermeneutical implications of reading Revelation within the canonical framework of the New Testament is to serve as a check and corrective on interpretations that seek to read the violent militaristic imagery of the Apocalypse literalistically. If Jesus wins his victory over the world through his faithful death on a cross (as all the rest of the New Testament documents insist), and if Revelation’s figurative depictions are to be read in intertextual concert with these other texts, then the triumphant rider who is “clothed in a robe dipped in blood” (Rev 19: 13) must be wearing a garment drenched with his own blood, and the “sharp sword” that comes “from his mouth…to strike down the nations” (Rev 19: 15) must be the proclaimed word of the gospel (as in Eph 6:17), not a literal sword of iron that kills enemies. (Richard B. Hays and Stefan Alikier, 2015) (Richard B. Hays and Stefan Alikier, 2015, p. 81)

While I would agree that the violent militaristic imagery of Revelation is not to be read literalistically, it is far too easy to attempt to create an image of God that fits nicely with a life of privilege and therefore does not respond to the saints calls for justice or for their blood to be avenged. In 2004, during my final semester of seminary, I had the opportunity to read for the first of many times Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace which helped me understand the need for God’s judgment or wrath in a way I hadn’t before. Perhaps it was some of the connections between Dr. Volf’s stories and influences in my own story that made his poignant reflection so powerful since the unit I served with in the military had just returned from a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and I heard many reflections on the way that Croatians had been targeted for ethnic cleansing, perhaps it was the vulnerable blending of personal experience and academics but the book resonated with me. This book became one of the works I have returned to again and again as I reflect on what an embodied Christian faith looks like. The final chapter of Exclusion and Embrace, ‘Violence and Peace’, may not be exclusively about Revelation but it dances with the imagery of Revelation multiple times as he argues for the necessity of divine judgment for Christians to practice reconciliation and non-violence. It is worth quoting here at length:

Most people who insist on God’s “nonviolence” cannot resist using violence themselves (or tacitly sanctioning its use by others). They deem the talk of God’s judgment irreverent, but think nothing of entrusting judgment into human hands, persuaded presumably that this is less dangerous and more humane than to believe in a God who judges! That we should bring “down the powerful from their thrones” (Luke 1: 51-52) seems responsible; the God should do the same, as the song of that revolutionary Virgin explicitly states, seems crude. And so violence thrives, secretly nourished by belief in a God who refuses to wield the sword.

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover it takes the quiet suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind. (Volf, 1996, pp. 303-304)

To Christians who live in easy accommodation with the ways of power, like those in the churches in Sardis and Laodicea we met in chapter three, the language of judgment may be uncomfortable or unwanted. As a person who serves in a privileged and predominantly affluent suburb in the United States it may be easier to deal with a God who allows things to remain as they are or to rely upon my own power for action and to take judgment into my own hands. But if vengeance is mine, then perhaps I too have fallen prey to the temptation the serpent put before Eve in the garden of Eden: to be like God. On the other hand, those who dwell on the violent portions of Revelation often miss the restraint that is a part of this and other places where divine judgment is involved. From the story of Noah onward we see that wrath or violence does not change the inclination of the human heart and punishment alone does not bring about repentance.

Another reflection from my time in the military that may also be a part of the costly patience of God has to do with the impact of these actions upon the people and the earth. Conflict that involves military force is always destructive and while modern military action often is restrained in its use of force there are always innocent casualties and damage to environment where the action occurs. While there is restraint in God’s actions as the trumpets sound here in Revelation the damage to the earth is dramatic. Like in Exodus 7-12, where God’s actions until the very last sign and wonder attempt to limit the death of the people of Egypt, the predominant ‘victim’ of the divine action is the earth. In Genesis 3:17, when God is judging Adam and Eve after they eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the earth bears the curse for humanity and likewise here in Revelation it will be the plants, the waters and even the sun and stars that will suffer prior to the sixth seal where death is unleashed and 1/3 of humankind is killed.

The first trumpet is hail mixed with fire and blood. Fire mixed with hail was one of the signs and wonders used against the Egyptians while the Israelites were slaves (Exodus 9: 13-35) and later in the book of Ezekiel it was prophesied against Gog and its allies (Ezekiel 38:22). Blood falling with rain is also a portent of war in Greco-Roman writings. (Koester, 2014, p. 448) As mentioned above it is the earth that feels the impact of this hail, fire and blood. That doesn’t mean people would be unaffected. The grass was used for feeding the flocks and the wood was used for everything from shelter to furniture to fuel for heat and cooking. One third of the earth being consumed by fires would be both an ecological and a financial disaster for the people and yet it allows for survival so that there remains an opportunity for continued witness and the hope of repentance.

The second trumpet impacts the seas and the creatures that live within it. While there are ships that are destroyed, the earth again bears the primary impact of this trumpet of judgment.  The loss of sea life would impact the diet of the people throughout the Roman empire who ate seafood and the loss of shipping would be an economic disaster for those who lost ships, cargo and crews. Yet, life continues to remain possible.

Artemisia Absinthium, also called ‘wormwood’

The third trumpet impacts the fresh waters by making them undrinkable. The naming of the star ‘wormwood’ references artemisia abisinthium which is bitter and whose oil would make food and water unpalatable. Even though this plant is now used for medicinal purposes, the reference here is to water that is no longer potable. While many died from undrinkable water there much of the waters that are not impacted so that life can continue and there remains the opportunity for change.

Finally, the fourth trumpet eliminates a third of the light of the sun, moon and stars. Even the heavens are altered by the narrative of Revelation. Combined the first four trumpets bring about an ecological disaster impacting the skies, the seas and the land. When I was growing up in the 1980s at the height of the Cold War the popular interpretations of passages like this were based on a nuclear war. While I don’t think John was witnessing a nuclear war being unveiled to him I do think it is important to realize that many of these images are portents of a devastating war and the ecological disaster it can bring. When I was growing up there were individuals who hoped for this war because they believed it would signal the beginning of the ‘apocalypse’ and would bring about God’s return. I wonder now how anyone could hope for the type of ecological and humanitarian disaster that a nuclear war would bring. There will always be a temptation to link concrete events with the language of Revelation, and at times of crisis like World War II, Revelation was viewed by some as a promise that the terror would have a limited span and that the horror would end. Revelation may prove a beacon of hope for those dealing with disasters and terrors across history but I prefer to allow the images to retain their plasticity and their ability to speak to multiple times and experiences.

The chapter ends with an eagle crying out “Woe, woe, woe” for the remaining trumpet blasts. This dire statement brings us into the expectation that the final trumpet blasts will be more severe than the four that came before. Yet, even these woes that are coming have limits placed upon them to allow for continued witnessing and calling for repentance.

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The Lament of the Forgotten Son

Margaret Adams Parker, Reconciliation: Sculpture of the Parable of the Prodigal Son for Duke Divinity School (2005) View 1

Margaret Adams Parker, Reconciliation: Sculpture of the Parable of the Prodigal Son for Duke Divinity School (2005) View 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You stand out on the crossroads looking for the prodigal
Waiting for the return of the one who cashed in his heritage
Who took what we worked so long to build and walked away
He wished for your death and plundered your house
And yet day after day you wait for his return, this lost son
Like some wandering sheep you set out in search of him
Like some lost coin you search every corner to find again
And so, you stand out at the crossroads today and every day
While I rise up in your stead, tending the flock, sowing the seed
Working to ensure that for all of us there will be a harvest
You pine for your lost son, I grieve for my lost father

This son of yours, this spoiled younger brother of mine
Unwilling to dirty his hands among the fields or to care for the home
Who shirked the yoke that I bore for you countless seasons
There were always excuses that were made on his behalf
I thought that his last request might finally cross a line
That this final insult, this slap in the face might raise your ire
Is there nothing he could do, no request he might make
That might cause you to put your foot down and say, ‘no more’
How could you let him take away the work of our hands
Going off to a distant land with the wealth of generations
This son of yours, this spoiled younger brother of mine

The days you spent on the crossroads looking for the prodigal
Are the days you never once looked at me managing the house
Sweating with the servants in the field to sow and reap a harvest for you
Holding everything together while you stayed lost in your grief
Did your eyes never fall upon me as I shepherded your flock?
Was a word of praise ever uttered from your lips for my longstanding obedience?
Did your desire to see what was lost blind you to what remains?
The absent son who erased the son with calloused hands and burnt skin
Who stayed and never strayed from the homestead
And who is still waiting here for you to join him as he works in the vineyard

Then, one day, as I exit the fields at the end of a weary day
I hear merriment as the town eats our food and drinks our wine
The fatted calf has been slaughtered for the prodigals return
And while the entire town was invited to the celebration
You never considered coming to the fields to retrieve me?
It is only from a slave that I learn that my brother has returned
And my father as well, back from the crossroads and the ends of the earth
You rejoice with the town while my soul bleed outside the home I sustained
What must I do to be seen, heard, loved and welcomed?
Must I also become the prodigal for you to celebrate me?
Must I deny you so that you might accept me?

How long before you realize that there is a son missing from your feast?
Before you make the journey into the fields you abandoned for the crossroads?
Until you see the son who didn’t squander your wealth with prostitutes
He feasted away your fortune and you throw him a feast of rich foods
I worked your fields, maintained your table, fed your flocks
Yet, not even a goat was to be spared for me and my friends
Welcome home father, I hope you appreciate the pantry I stocked
Welcome home brother, I hope you enjoyed the calf I raised
Hear this lament of the forgotten son who awaited your return
To the family you both turned your backs upon

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Revelation 7 Restraint and Praise

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), Angels Restraining the Four Winds (woodcut)

Revelation 7

1 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on earth or sea or against any tree. 2 I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to damage earth and sea, 3 saying, “Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have marked the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads.”

4 And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel: 5 From the tribe of Judah twelve thousand sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand, 6 from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand, 7 from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand, 8 from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin twelve thousand sealed.

9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The previous chapter ends with the mighty of the earth brought low in their fear of the face of the one seated on the throne and the wrath of the lamb and we are left expecting the vengeance of God to be unveiled. What follows in this chapter is another great reversal of expectations: where wrath is expected we find restraint, where the mighty wonder who is able to stand we see a countless multitude standing before the throne, where seals have been broken and the mighty brought low now a lost people is sealed and lifted up. In a pattern that Revelation will repeat, we pause before the last unveiling and we are reoriented to the worship that is ongoing in heaven. We will see the contrast between earth and heaven, but Revelation’s trajectory is that what happens on earth will be the same as what happens in heaven.

Our scene opens with four angels restraining the four winds at the four corners of the earth. After the great earthquake and the signs in the heavens which even the nations can see and respond to we pause. The earth is not to be damaged at this point, although the upcoming series of trumpets will direct much of the damage towards the earth. But here, while the 144,000 are sealed the earth gets a reprieve. As St. Paul can say in Romans, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God;” (Romans 8:19) Creation and humanity’s destiny are tied together throughout the Bible beginning with the creation narrative when, after eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it is creation that bears the curse that is originally to fall on Adam and Eve. (Genesis 3: 17) Now there is restraint as the servants (literally slaves) of God are to be sealed. The vocation which they have had before was unseen in the world but now they are being marked as servants of the living God. This sealing marks them as honored in this narrative and the slaves of God are higher than the generals and kings of the earth. The mighty are brought down and the humble and humiliated are here lifted up.

The one hundred forty-four thousand from the nation of Israel brings the people of God back into Revelation. As I’ve mentioned multiple times John, the author of Revelation, uses the language of Israel’s vocation in relation to the church but here the tribes of Israel are reassembled and marked for their own vocation. Numbers are symbolically important to Revelation and this twelve groups of twelve thousand symbolically points to a census where the total number of God’s people are sealed. John’s visionary approach may not lead to the type of declaration that Paul would make in his wrestling about the place of Israel in Romans 9-11 where he declares that all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26) but the azimuth of this vision points in the same direction. God has not forgotten Israel and has sealed them as God’s own.

The close reader will notice that the listing of the tribes has two peculiarities: Ephraim and Dan are not named. The two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, are typically listed as half tribes. While Manasseh is named in the list Ephraim is not. Yet, there is a tribe of Joseph which would include Ephraim, but it is peculiar that Manasseh receives note and Ephraim (which becomes a way of talking about the northern tribes in general in some of the prophets) is not. Dan is missing from the list. We do not know the reason for Dan’s omission. Medieval interpreters favored an explanation that the Antichrist was to come from Dan, but these traditions all post-date Revelation by centuries. Yet, symbolically there are twelve tribes even if the names do not line up perfectly with the designation of the tribes elsewhere in scripture.

There has always been a temptation for Christian groups, from the Franciscans of the thirteenth century to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the nineteenth and twentieth century to see the 144,000 as a special group that needed to be gathered to bring about the end age. Other Christians have seen this group as representing the church which may include Jewish Christians, but they read this in line with other parts of Revelation where the church assumes the vocation of Israel. As pointed out above, I view this as talking about the Jewish people and including them in a place of honor among the multitude among the nations which are gathered around the throne.

The seal of the living God has its opposite in the mark of the beast in Revelation 13. In the vision of Revelation there is no middle group, one either is marked by God or by the forces opposed to God. To be sealed by the 144,000 will provide them with protection, for example the demonic locusts in Revelation 9 will be able to torment those who do not have the seal of God on their forehead. Like in the plagues on Egypt in Exodus the people of God will not be targeted by all the destructive forces that are unleashed in later cycles. However, they will also be a target for those opposed to God and aligned with the forces of the devil. I am reminded of Luther’s advice to parents and churches baptizing young children:

Therefore, you have to realize that it is no joke at all to take action against the devil and not only to drive him away from the little child but also to hang around the child’s neck such a mighty, lifelong enemy. (Luther, 1978, p. 68)

Those who have been sealed by God are now in opposition to those whose power is opposed to God in the world. Like in Exodus, those whom God has chosen may seem like the lowest of slaves before the kings and generals of the world, but they are those who are able to stand before the face of the one on the throne and the wrath of the lamb.

Douce Apocalypse Bodlein MS180 (1265-70)

Yet, this salvation is not only for Israel. It is inclusive and broad and encompasses a multitude beyond counting of all nations, languages, tribes and peoples. This multitude joins the elders in wearing white. They have come out of the great ordeal and they hold palm branches celebrating the victory of the Lamb and the salvation that God and the Lamb have brought. Revelation operates in the space between Satan’s expulsion from heaven and the time of the Messiah’s return to earth to bring the peace that occupies heaven to earth. The time of the great ordeal is most likely not a reference to a time of future woe and tragedies but rather, like most of Revelation, an understanding that the current brokenness and suffering of the world is due to the influence of Satan and other forces opposed to God’s reign in the world.

The countless multitude cry out that salvation belongs to God and the Lamb. The language of salvation was frequently used in Roman declarations as the role of Caesar, but here the singing multitude attribute it to its proper place, to the Lord and to Jesus. The angels and elders join in with a seven-fold praise of God as symbolically the voices of heaven and earth join in praising God. God and Christ in this vision remain at the center of not only the praise of the people and angels and creatures, but also in the center of reality. Revelation enables John to show us a world that is struggling with the forces opposed to the creating God who desires to dwell among God’s world and people and yet God still reigns and is in control of the things that seem beyond control.

This vision also foreshadows the hope of Revelation which will come to fruition in Revelation 21 and 22 while it also pulls from a rich storehouse of prophetic images of hope. The great multitude are sheltered and then in language resonant of Isaiah 49:10:

They shall not hunger or thirst, neither shall scorching wind strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by the springs of water will guide them.

In another image reversal it is the Lamb at the center of the throne who shepherds the multitude. Instead of a shepherd watching a flock of sheep now the Lamb is the shepherd of the people. As many Christians may recognize the familiar imagery of Psalm 23 in this image, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ but may miss the image of Ezekiel 34 where in protest to the unfaithfulness of the existing shepherd/rulers the LORD sets up a new shepherd:

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken. Ezekiel 34: 23-24

And in an allusion to the great banquet that the LORD promises in Isaiah 25 we hear what is for me one of the most powerful images that appears here and in Revelation 21:4. As Isaiah 25: 8 states:

he will swallow up death forever.
Then the LORD God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.

In combining language from several places in the prophets we have a beautiful and peaceful image of God’s consolation and care for those who have undergone suffering in the world. Many people focus only on the images of destruction in Revelation but miss these significant pauses and moments of restraint which point to the reality that amid the suffering God remains the one who has glory and power and honor and might. The Lamb is the place where salvation will come from instead of the kings, generals and the mighty of the world. And that, even with the death and terror in the world, heaven is centered on praising God. Revelation is leading us on a journey to a world where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

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Revelation 6 Opening the Seals

Albrecht Durer, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1498)

Revelation 6: 1-8 The Four Horsemen

1 Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, “Come!” 2 I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer.

3 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature call out, “Come!” 4 And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword.

5 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature call out, “Come!” I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand, 6 and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a day’s pay, and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!”

7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, “Come!” 8 I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.

The series of seals, trumpets and bowl which begin in this chapter and run through chapter nineteen are the portions of Revelation that many people are captivated and sometimes repulsed by.  This is also the portion of Revelation where interpretations will vary greatly. Sometimes familiarity with the language of scripture and the images of the culture of the time of Revelation can make certain interpretive options more likely for John’s initial audience but ultimately any attempt to restrict the highly symbolic image laden language of Revelation to one meaning betrays the lingering power of these images which continue to resonate two millennia later. As I proceed through these cycles of images I will present a reading that I find compelling and interesting, but I also am aware that my own reading will not agree with many other intelligent, informed and engaged interpreters.

Among these images the most famous is also the first. The four horses with their riders, commonly referred to as the four horsemen of the apocalypse, correspond to the initial four seals and are announced by the four living creatures around the throne. To begin looking at the four horses and their riders and the three seals that follows begins with a choice of how to approach the seals themselves. The seals are on a scroll written on the front and back, but ultimately unreadable until the scrolls are broken, and it is only the appearance of the Lion of Judah which is the sacrificed Lamb who is worthy (see the pivotal reversal of the previous chapter) which enables the seals to be opened. Do the seals themselves reveal the content of the scroll and are therefore a part of the judgment of God or are they merely preparations that enable us to be prepared to receive this judgment. One can argue for either perspective but following the image of a sealed scroll I read these as preparations to be able to understand what comes afterwards. Especially the first five seals represent in my reading a way of understanding the world to which the later judgements will be addressed. Even though there is a lot of interplay between what I am labeling three cycles as shown in the table below and there is a sense of progression in the narration from seal to trumpet to bowls there is also a cyclical nature where each series can illuminate a common idea in a different manner.

The Seven Seals (Revelation 6:1- 8:5) The Seven Trumpets (Revelation 8:6-11:13 The Seven Bowls (Revelation 16:2-21
S1 The First Horseman (Conquest/Empire) T1 hail and fire mixed with blood; 1/3 of the earth burned B1 Painful sores on those marked by beast
S2 The Second Horseman (War, removal of peace) T2 Burning mountain thrown into sea destroys 1/3 of life of the sea B2 Sea becomes like blood
S3 The Third Horseman (famine, inflation of food prices) T3 Wormwood falls making 1/3 of fresh water undrinkable B3 Rivers and springs become like blood
S4 The Fourth Horseman (Death, ¼ of population killed by sword, famine, death and wild animals) T4 1/3 of sun doesn’t shine, 1/3 of moonlight and starlight removed B4 People scorched by the sun’s fire
S5 Martyred Saints call for God’s action T5 First Woe: The Demonic Locusts B5 Darkness over the kingdom of the beast
S6 Earthquake, sun eclipsed, moon turns to blood, stars fall, sky rolls up like a scroll T6 Second Woe: Four Angels of the Abyss and demonic cavalry destroy 1/3 of population B6 Euphrates river dried up, demonic spirits rally kings to oppose the reign of God
S7 Silence in heaven followed by prayers of saints offered like incense T7 heavenly worship B7 Great city split by earthquake, islands and mountains disappear

NIB, XII:610

Another parallel to these initial seals is to the description can be seen in what is sometimes called the ‘little apocalypse’ in Mark 13 (and parallels in Matthew 24 and Luke 21).

Mark 13: 7-9, 24-25 Revelation 6:1-8:1-5
Wars S1 Conquest
Violent conflict between nations S2 War, removal of peace
Earthquakes S3 Famine
Famine S4 Death
Persecutions S5 Martyred saints
Heavenly Signs S6 Heavenly signs
Son of Man comes in the clouds S7 Heavenly silence and prayers

(Koester, 2014, p. 358)

The four horsemen of the apocalypse have proven to be a powerful visual image for artists, storytellers and has slipped into our language in surprising ways. John Gottman can adopt the four horsemen as a metaphor for four practices which, in his research, are the four primary predictors of divorce (criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stone walling). Gottman as a practicing Orthodox Jew was able to pull this metaphor from the cultural references to the horsemen. They have occupied the worlds of fiction and film, for example the Clint Eastwood movie Pale Rider is built around a resonance for the final rider on a ‘pale’ horse whose name is death and hell follows after him. Even within the world of video games in the Darksiders series you can play as War or Death (riders of the apocalypse) in a destroyed world that may not be theologically related to the world of the bible (other than involving angels and demons) but uses these brief descriptions as an imaginative starting point to construct a character and the world in which they unleash their destructive power in a search for redemption (in the first two games War and Death respectively are the protagonists). The artist and writers will continue to utilize the four horsemen as a source for their imaginative constructions both literarily and visually yet the challenge for the reader of scripture is to ponder how these briefly described figures emerging from the seals might help us to make sense of the world we encounter.

Interpretation of the horses and their riders ultimately rests with the first horse and rider and how they are viewed. While the riders and horses may draw inspiration from the horses that patrol the earth in Zechariah 1: 8-10 (red, sorrel and white) and the four chariots in Zechariah 6: 1-8 (red, black, white and dappled grey) which represent the four winds of heaven, ultimately the four horses and their riders form a new and powerful image of conquest, war, famine and death. Hearing the description of each seal I imagine John on the ground because he sees the horse emerge first and then only after looking at the horse is the rider observed and described. Yet, it will be the horse and the rider taken together with their complementary descriptions that will make the images as powerful as they remain.

The first rider on the white horse is described having a bow, a crown is given to him and he came out conquering and to conquer. On the one hand there is not a lot of description but what is present is symbolically rich and has led to several interpretations. Some interpreters have focused on the white horse and the repetitive use of nikao (Greek word translated to conquer see discussion in Revelation 2: 1-7) in two different verbal forms and have assumed that the first rider is Christ as he is depicted in Revelation 19. If Christ is the first rider then the other riders will be in opposition to the first rider and though this, by itself is not decisive, this description emphasizes that the weapon given to the rider is a bow, while Christ conquers with the sword of his mouth. A mounted bowman is also not a unit that was used within the Roman legions but was used by the Assyrians and Babylonians when they conquered Israel and Judah as well as other non-Roman peoples like the Parthians. While it could represent conquest by non-Roman forces or play upon Roman fears it may represent conquest more broadly. The parallel between the white horse here and in Revelation 19 may also reflect the way that conquest often masquerades as something that is righteous or holy. This first rider may reflect an anti-Christ figure that pretends to be holy when it is a manifestation of the unholy.  It is also worth noting that the bow is also used by the armies of Gog in Ezekiel 38-39 and as Ezekiel 39:3 can state:

I will strike your bow from your hand, and will make your arrows drop out of your right hand.

My best reading of this is that the white rider does represent conquest and that which parades as righteous but which Revelation will argue is demonic and within the progression of Revelation it will become clear that Rome is reflected by many of these images to the first hearers. As I mentioned the Roman legions did not use mounted bowmen at this point and yet the bow stands to distinguish the white horse here from Christ. Rome was the primary empire which built and sustained itself on wars of conquest. For me the seals reveal the world as it is for the hearers. Yet, the power of this and the other images of Revelation is the way they can typologically represent the experiences of multiple times. In many ways this rider which represents empire and conquest which often appears in the guise of righteousness but may truly be demonic should be an uncomfortable if poetic image to measure the powers and the actions of one’s time against. In my own context, in what ways does America masquerade as being righteous and benevolent and yet act in a way that models this rider rather than the crucified Lamb? Although he is referring to the image of the rider in Revelation 19, Miroslav Volf’s words resonate here as well. “We will believe in the Crucified, but we want to march with the Rider.” (Volf, 1996, p. 276) We may confess the crucified one who conquered through his suffering and death, but we may want to follow the strongman who conquers through military might.

The second fiery red horse and its rider with the sword who takes peace from the earth. The Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, was one of the claims of the benefits of the empire. Rome’s military might and administration was supposed to guarantee peace, but the Roman peace was built upon the enforcement of the legions and the fear of crucifixion or other means of punishment. Readers with a Jewish background would be familiar with what we can call today the first Jewish-Roman war from 66-73 CE in which Roman legions under the command of Vespasian and his son Titus would destroy the temple, much of Jerusalem and wreak havoc on the towns and countryside of Judea. The second rider on a red horse, much like the rider on a red horse in Zechariah 1: 7-12, can see that the peace that has been brought to the earth by forces of empire have done so at a high cost to Jerusalem and the cities of Judah (see Zechariah 1: 12). Or in the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14; see also Jeremiah 8:11 and Ezekiel 13:10)

While the second rider could be a force which destroys the Pax Romana and sends the nations into turmoil I read it as a revelation of what the Pax Romana really is, war under the guise of peace. In the Roman pantheon Mars is second only to Jupiter in his importance and is viewed in the mythic genealogy of Rome as the father of Romulus and Remus. War was a central part of the Roman identity, theirs was a peace through continual conquest both on the borders of the empire and against any forces of insurrection internally. Rome was a strongman who conquered by the spear and the sword. As Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian, could sarcastically remark, “pacem sine dubio…verum cruentam. Peace there was, without question, but a bloody one.” (Zanker, 1988, p. 187) Again, the question becomes for my own context to ask about the ways in which in America military might becomes worshipped instead of the crucified. Could some of our own struggles with issues around guns in America reflect a god more like Mars or more like the expected Lion than the Crucified Lamb.

Ara Pacis, The “Tellus” Panel were Pax (Peace) is portrayed providing fertility and prosperity

The black horse with the rider with its scales for commerce comes while a voice calls out from the direction of the throne exorbitant prices for grain. As Craig Koester can note (citing the Jewish historian Josephus), “The prices in Revelation were eight to sixteen times higher than usual, rates associated with severe shortages (Josephus, Ant. 14.28). A worker would have to spend his entire day’s pay to provide wheat bread for himself or enough barley for a small family.” (Koester, 2014, p. 396) The trade enabled by the infrastructure of the empire and the security provided by the Roman legions. In Roman artwork Pax, the goddess of peace, is portrayed in ways that relate her to Venus and Tellus who are gods of fertility and agriculture. Yet, reality among the people did not always reflect the images portrayed in the language and artwork of the empire. As Craig Koester can note:

In the imperial world the principal cause of food shortages “was the earmarking of vast quantities of grain to feed the city of Rome and the armies, while through the Empire large areas continued to be diverted from the cultivation of cereals to the more profitable production of wine and olive oil.” (Rom. Civ. 2:247) Some people made handsome profits in oil and wine, but reduced grain cultivation meant that when the harvest was meager or grain shipments were disrupted, many cities faced a food crisis. (Koester, 2014, p. 397)

A modern dystopic world built on a similar crisis is The Hunger Games novels written by Suzanne Collins. In the books the conquered districts send most of their resources into a capital district to finance their lavish lifestyles and appetites while the people in the districts deal with oppression, hunger and deprivation. In a world of trade which is based upon consumer demand and property and the resources of the world concentrate in economically stronger countries and regions this image of the black horse, its rider and the calling voice continues to provide a challenging image for the world in which we live. When the consumption of luxury goods (represented by oil and wine in Revelation) begins to crowd out the ability of subsistence farmers to grow the necessities for making the bread to feed the mouths of the world then we live in a world reflective of this horseman where securing the minimums for survival becomes a challenge for all but the wealthy. The society that the bible advocates for is one where every mouth is fed and the neighbor’s well being is provided for. Yet, throughout the history of Israel and the church this vision continually conflicts with the human instinct to hoard resources and to accumulate property, wealth and power. In Revelation 18 when Babylon (Rome) falls and the economic system that sustained it collapses it will be the merchants who brought the wealth of the earth to the capital who will shed tears and cry at the devastation of the city and their livelihood that was tied to this system.

The final horse emerges as a sickly green and its rider is Death personified. Just as the Romans could personify things like Victory or Peace into goddesses like Nike or Pax the Hebrew people personified Death and Hades as superhuman forces which have the power to grasp or consume people. The forces of conquest, war and an economy of trade and taxation have led finally to death. The promises of empire of prosperity and peace have been finally revealed as their opposite. Sword, famine, and disease is a common traditional list of ways in which death comes as a judgment (see for example 2 Chronicles 20:9; Jeremiah 14: 12; 21:7; Ezekiel 5:17; 6:11) and added to this is the threat of wild animals which enter the space of devastation and destruction in the aftermath of war and the loss of the protection of cities and communities.

For me the four horses and their riders provide a resonant image that continues to function today as a prophetic image to evaluate society by. When the forces of empire, military might and commercial commerce instead of promoting life for the entire society, and by extension the world, but instead become forces that are based upon war or economic exploitation then we mirror the horsemen and bring death instead of life. I believe that the horses and their riders point to the reality of the world as it is and that while they are not caused by God they are shown for what they are. Yet, even Death and Hades are ultimately subject to God and in Revelation 20 will be forced to surrender their captives before being sentenced to the lake of fire.

Revelation 6: 9-11 The Faithful Saints

9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; 10 they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” 11 They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.

With the opening of the fifth seal we see yet another revelation of the way the world is in the death of those who are faithful witnesses. The death of these followers of Jesus may have seemed a meaningless loss to those on earth but here in Revelation their deaths are given meaning as a sacrifice lifted up to God. Yet, as this sacrifice is lifted up there is an expectation that God will act upon their sacrifice and the act as judge and avenger. Their cry is a familiar cry to the people of Israel, “how long?” They believe and trust that God will not let injustice continue indefinitely. God is a God who will act on behalf of the faithful.

This fifth seal reveals the position of the church at the beginning of Revelation, they continue to wait on God’s action. They do not take judgment into their own hands and act as revolutionaries. Their prayers go up, their lives may be offered up as faithful witnesses and yet action rests in God’s hands. God’s kingdom comes to earth in God’s time and not the time of the saints. Yet, they do receive a white robe to clothe their bodies in the resurrection. The image here is not of a disembodied soul, even though the word soul is used at the beginning of this description but the movement of the hope of Revelation and the early church is an embodied hope of resurrected bodies on earth rather than souls remaining in heaven.

Most translations introduce the word ‘number’ into verse eleven and this translation points to a number of witnesses that must die prior to God’s action, and while this tradition is based on other ancient sources it is not present in Revelation. Ultimately verse eleven points to the completion of the work of the witnesses. Their work is not yet complete. God exercises a costly divine patience so that the witnesses to the gospel might carry their message to the ends of the earth and that the nations may have an opportunity to repent. Even with the death and destruction of Revelation, God continues to exercise restraint providing the opportunity for all those who can be redeemed to be saved. Yet, God will not ultimately allow the forces of conquest, war, exploitation and death to reign. God will not remain indifferent as forces threaten the creation, but God will exercise a patience that is costly to the witnesses of the gospel. Much like in Jesus’ parable of wicked tenants (Mark 12: 1-12 and parallels) God continues to send the servants even as they are ridiculed, tortured and even killed in the hope that these tenants might change.

Revelation 6:12-17 The Sixth Seal

12 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”

With the sixth seam the creation itself reacts to the violence on the earth. Like Matthew’s crucifixion narrative in particular, (although both Mark and Luke share some of these elements) where the sun’s light is blocked, and an earthquake shatters the ground as the elements of the creation bear witness to what most of humanity remains unable to see. Here in Revelation several traditional elements like the sun becoming darkness and the moon turning to blood (Joel 2: 31, also quoted in Acts 2:20). The stars falling from the sky were viewed as a sign of impending disaster while the sky being rolled up like a scroll echoes the language of Isaiah 34:4. Yet, in these cosmic signs the mighty and powerful of the earth and those without power can read the signs in the heavens and the earth and know that judgment is coming, and they attempt to hide themselves. They would rather have the mountains fall upon them than endure the judgment that is to come. Their terror is such that death is preferable to enduring the coming judgment. This transition at the end of Revelation 6 to the beginning of Revelation 7 is one of those great reversals that the New Testament loves. In the language of Mary’s song:

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors. Luke 1: 51-56

Now the mighty flee their thrones and their positions of power into the hills and mountains while the remnant of Israel are to be sealed and protected. For those among the faithful these signs are signs of hope and joy for they believe that God is finally ready to set the world right and to bring about the kingdom of God. In the language of Rory Cooney’s adaptation of the Mary’s song title ‘The Canticle of the Turning’

My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near and the world is about to turn.

In the following chapter we will see the sealed remnant of Israel and the countless multitude of the nations who are able to stand while the political and military leaders and the wealthy and powerful quiver and hide among the rocks. God’s wrath may be an uncomfortable image for those who live a comfortable and sheltered life. God’s justice may mean the upending of the systems of conquest, military power, economic exploitation and ultimately death that the wealthy and powerful have benefited from. As a military veteran who lives in suburban America and who benefits from many systems where I have privilege these are difficult words to listen to. These can be words of judgment and hope, or to use Lutheran language law and gospel. The prophetic challenge should force us to reexamine the lives that we live and the policies we advocate for, but the prophetic hope calls us to dream of what would happen when the world turns, when God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. The change may be uncomfortable and there will be those who would rather die than change. Yet, in Revelation God’s justice will not ultimately be thwarted and God’s desire to dwell among humanity will finally be realized.

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 Revelation 5 The Lion is a Lamb

Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei, between 1635 and 1640

 

Revelation 5

1 Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; 2 and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” 3 And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it.4 And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. 5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

 6 Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.

7 He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. 8 When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9 They sing a new song:

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints
from every tribe and language and people and nation;
10 you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth.”

11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 singing with full voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom
and might and honor and glory and blessing!”

13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,

“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.

Revelation envisions a world centered upon the worship of God and the Lamb. In contrast to the way in which people will worship idols of stone, wood, and metal or those who will worship at the altars of commerce, military might, fame, popularity or political power the people of God were always to ‘fear, love and trust God above all things’ in Martin Luther’s memorable explanation of the first commandment. The Lord’s prayer asks for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Heaven becomes the template for what life on earth is to become. There is a consistent theme throughout the Bible of the desire of God to dwell among the earth and the people of God represented narratively through stories like God walking with Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, God’s creation of the tabernacle to dwell among the people of Israel in Exodus and decisively for Christians in the narratives of the incarnation in the gospels. Revelation will move us to a world where God comes down to dwell among humanity but here in heaven we see a glimpse of what the properly ordered world will look like. Heaven shows us a world centered on God the Father and on Jesus. To use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s description from his lectures on the creation narratives, “The life that comes from God is at the center; that is to say, God, who gives life, is at the center.” (DBWE 3: 83)

The previous chapter brought us into the throne room of God where we saw the creatures and the elders worshipping the Lord who is seated on the throne. We begin chapter five with the introduction of a scroll with seven seals which is written inside and one the back. There is a message that is coming from God that is unable to be read because it is sealed and the revelation of its contents can only occur once all the seals are removed. The disclosure of the contents of the scroll and receiving this message from the Lord is a weighty matter and no one or nothing in heaven or on earth or under the earth meets the call for worthiness put forward by the mighty angel. God’s proclamation, judgment and justice seems to have been delayed because of the unworthiness of those throughout creation to receive the message. This situation causes John to weep at the delay of God’s action. In contrast to the merchants and the wealthy in Revelation 18 who will weep at the unfolding of judgment within the scroll, John weeps that justice appears to have been sealed away until another time. But John is among those blessed mourners mentioned in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:4 for in Christ his mourning will be comforted.

One of the elders informs John that ‘the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered.’ This conquest enables this one to be worthy to open the seals on the scroll, but this is a scene of many reversals and redefinitions. The one mentioned is Jesus and his conquest is in his crucifixion. Instead of a military leader who conquers through military might, as one might expect of one whose title is the Lion of Judah, by his suffering he redeems for God a multitude from every tribe and every nation. Revelation frequently evokes images and figures from Israel’s scriptures much like the gospel of John does. To use Richard B. Hays’ language about John the apostle applies here to John the author of Revelation as well, “John is the master of the carefully framed, luminous image that shines brilliantly against a dark canvas and lingers in the imagination.” (Hays, 2016, p. 284) The Lion of Judah goes back to Jacob’s final blessing of his sons Genesis 49: 9-10:

Judah is a lion’s whelp;
From the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He crouches down, he stretches out like a lion,
like a lioness—who dares rouse him up?
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and the obedience of the peoples is his.

1 Kings relates how lion imagery adorned the throne room of Solomon:

The throne had six steps. The top of the throne was rounded in the back, and on each side of the seat were arm rests and two lions standing beside the arm rests, while twelve lions were standing, one on each end of a step on the six steps. Nothing like it was ever made in any kingdom. (1 Kings 10: 19-20)

The root of David recalls the imagery used in the prophets to talk about a coming one who will once again reign in the place of the lost Davidic monarchy. Isaiah 11: 1 specifically links the imagery of branch and root:

A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of its roots.

Other prophets like Jeremiah (23: 5; 33:15) and Zechariah (3:8; 6:12) will refer to the hope of the coming Davidic king referring to the branch imagery. Both of these terms had strong messianic resonance in the hope of the Jewish people around the time of Jesus and many New Testament books would link Jesus’ identity to his association with the line of David.

Jan van Eyxk, Mystic Lamb detail from the Gent altarpiece (1432)

The Lion of the tribe of Judas is worthy to open the scroll but in a reversal of expectations what John sees is not a man or a king or even a lion but a lamb. The lion is the lamb, the one who has conquered is the one who stands as if it has been slaughtered. This reversal is a key image for the remainder of Revelation. John’s gospel places a similar image in the mouth of John the Baptist when he proclaims, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1: 29) The distinctive description of the lamb having seven horns and seven eyes continue to develop the paradox of the scene. The lamb appears like one that has been slaughtered but horns are considered representations of power. The seven eyes are linked to the seven spirits of God which are mentioned in chapter four linking the torches and spirits around God’s throne with the eyes on the Lamb. The description of the Lamb having seven horns sets up a comparison with the dragon and the beast that will arise from the sea (Revelation 12: 3; 13: 1) in addition to the death blow on the beast that arose out of the sea. Both the dragon and the beasts will demand honors that are only appropriate for God and the Lamb.

The Lamb approaches the throne and takes the scroll and the worship of the Lamb begins to radiate outward from the throne of God. The twenty-four elders bring the golden bowls of incense which we learn are the prayers of the saints. As Psalm 141 can state:

Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,
and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. (Psalm 141:2)

And in light of the action of the Lamb they lift up a new song. As I read these words I am reminded of Psalm 96 which begins:

O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things.
His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.
The LORD has made known his victory;
he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations. (Psalm 96: 1-2)

The new song the elders lift up to the Lamb is full of images from the scriptures. The connecting the slaughter of the Lamb and ransoming a people for God probably has its origination in the Passover lamb Exodus 12). Paul can use the image of Christ’s blood becoming a sacrifice of atonement (Romans 3: 25) and Mark’s gospel can briefly point in this direction when it mentions the Son of Man coming to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10: 45). The ransomed include saints of every tribe, language and people and confers on this group the vocation of Israel as a kingdom of priests (see Exodus 19:6 and the discussion in chapter 1).

The praise of the elders ends and the focus of the vision expands to include an uncountable host of angels lifting up their voices in praise as well. The angelic host lifts up a seven fold praise as they sing together in a full voice. God the creator was given a three fold praise, “Glory, honor and power” but now the Lamb receives this seven fold praise in language similar to David’s praise of God in 1 Chronicles:

Your, O LORD, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. And now, our God, we five thanks to you and praise your glorious name. (1 Chronicles 29: 11-13)

This scene of worship and praise ends with all of creation lifting up its voice in praise of both the one on the throne and the Lamb. The worship of the Creator and the Lamb are joined together in a final three-fold blessing of “honor and glory and might.” On behalf of the creation the four living creatures utter, “Amen!” and the elders continued their worship.

We will be returned to these scenes of heavenly worship throughout the book of Revelation. In the midst of the turmoil the saints will be reminded that God and the Lamb are firmly in control and worthy of worship and praise. Even though their praise may seem weak in the midst of the cacophony of the triumphant shouts directed to idols and the emperor, the faithful can know that their voices are joined to the elders, the myriads of angels and all of creation acknowledging the sovereignty of God. Though the individual communities may feel insignificant they are a part of the multitude from every tribe, language and people. They are reminded that all creation centers upon the Creator and the Lamb as they join in the universal worship.

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Revelation 4 The Throne Room of God

Herz-Jesu-Kirche, westseitige Teiansicht der Pendentifkuppel,Shared under Creative Commons attribution-Share alike 3.0 Germany

Revelation 4

1 After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” 2 At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! 3 And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. 4 Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. 5 Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; 6 and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.

Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7 the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. 8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,

“Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come.”

 9 And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,

 11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”

At the end of Revelation 3 the congregation in Laodicea was instructed to open the door when they hear the voice of the Lord and, with the other seven churches, to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. At the beginning of chapter four there is now a door that is open, the voice of the Lord (described in Revelation 1: 10-11 as a voice like a trumpet) now invites John to come up and see. Now once again John is in the spirit to see what is to be revealed to the churches and to the world. The promise at the end of the previous chapter promises to the one who conquers a place on Christ’s throne, and the throne Christ shares with God, now John (and by extension the readers) are invited to see the throne room of God to share in the things that are about to be revealed.

Some modern futurist interpretations of Revelation note that the word church disappears here until the end of the book and use this along with Paul’s address to the congregation in Thessalonica when he mentions the saints meeting the Lord in the air (1 Thessalonians 4: 16-17) to argue that the faithful church will be raptured away from the troubles that come in the later portions of the vision. While this view has a lot of popular support it also misreads Revelation and the New Testament in significant ways. The passage in 1 Thessalonians is Paul’s reassurance to the church in Thessalonica who have seen some of their members die that at Christ’s return to earth both the dead and the living will greet the returning Christ and join in procession with him as he returns. The direction of both Paul and Revelation’s theology is the return of God to dwell on earth, a reality where ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ becomes a reality. Instead of following Jesus’ call to his disciples to take up their cross and follow him in my view this interpretation makes the congregation of the faithful a group that when the going gets tough they are gone. It also requires the address to John to come, a singular invitation, to be broadened to the entire church in a futuristic way.

Before delving into the imagery of the throne room of God in all its strangeness to a modern listener it is helpful to realize that ancient listeners found scenes like this both fascinating and dangerous. Throughout religious history there have always been those who approached faith in a more mystical manner. In the early church the idea of the spirit taking someone up into a vision of heaven was accepted and within Judaism of this time we have writings which would testify to the writer entering the throne room of God. Jewish mysticism at this time rotated around two critical passages: Genesis 1 (the creation) and Ezekiel 1 (the throne room of God). This Jewish mysticism around Ezekiel 1 was known as merkbah and tended to be theologically interested in both God’s nature as well as the hierarchy and explaining the surroundings of the vision of God’s throne in heaven. Christopher Rowland points out that within the Mishnah (early Jewish writings explaining Torah probably compiled in the first and second century) we see evidence that, “Reading Ezekiel 1 was severely restricted by ancient Jewish teachers because of its use by visionaries and the dangers to faith and life that such visionary activity posed.” (NIB XII: 596) Yet, Ezekiel and Revelation continue to fascinate and perplex people and the time when the church or synagogue could prevent people from reading these passages has long passed.

My own tradition has long been suspicious of mysticism that focuses on the nature of God in Godself or long drawn out reflections on the throne room of God or angelic hierarchies. Martin Luther in his critique of the theology of the Roman Catholic church of his time labeled many of these speculative theologies as theologies of glory, while (in Luther’s mind) a true theologian would come to know God through the cross and suffering. Perhaps this is another reason why Luther was willing to consign the book of Revelation to the appendix of the New Testament. Yet, Luther in his writings did use this passage to refer to the centrality of proclamation in Christian worship and viewed the elders as teachers of the word. (LW 35:401, Koester, 2014, p.351)

Diving into this passage we are invited to imagine the scene that John sees and records. As implied above the passage echoes the portrayal of the throne room in Ezekiel 1 in several ways, but there are also several differences. We are invited to view what must take place in several powerful symbolic visions which will proceed in several cycles. Within each of these cycles there are pauses and delays to give time and space for repentance and change. But the early Christian communities who were struggling to remain faithful in the world of the Roman empire found this vision comforting because it reminds them that God has both the power and the authority to act. The forces of death and destruction, which will often be described in language that parodies the language of the Roman empire, will come to an end in this vision. The church may still be in the time where the saints cry out, “how long, O Lord?” and yet, Revelation allows the churches to know that God will not remain inactive.

While the Psalms, Isaiah, and the prophet Micaiah in 1 Kings could all mention the throne of God briefly (Psalms 11: 4, 103:19; Isaiah 6: 1-3; and 1 Kings 22:19) it is only Ezekiel 1 and Daniel 7: 9-10 that risk any type of description of God or God’s throne. The language of simile is used to describe that which is beyond description. The figure on the throne is like jasper and carnelian, two precious stones that have blue/purple and reddish colors respectively. The rainbow around the throne is emerald like in its splendor. Even Revelation doesn’t dare to dwell too long upon the figure sitting upon the throne but instead focuses its attention on the area surrounding the throne.

The twenty-four elders have been related to the twelve tribes and twelve apostles, priests and musicians in the temple, attendants of the Roman emperor, the cosmic order or even the twenty-four hours of the day. Each of these images is suggestive and may enrich how we view these figures but the term presbyteros (translated elder, this is where the Presbyterian church takes its name) is frequently used in the New Testament for elders within the church. These elders of the church may be taking on a timeless cosmic role as they minister around the throne of God, but they like the seven spirits of the churches in Revelation 1, they probably connect the church on earth with what is going on in heaven.

 

Stained-Glass depicting the four symbols of the gospel books : St. Luke (flying ox), St. John (bird), St. Mark (lion) and St. Mattthew (angel) Image from https://christianclipartreview.blogspot.com/2015/07/the-four-gospels.html

The four living creatures bear some similarity to the creatures mentioned in Ezekiel 1, but also a significant difference. Instead of each creature being the same with human form but four heads (human being, lion, ox, and eagle) the creatures now are individually like a human, lion, ox and eagle. This image of the four creatures has had a rich history in interpretation from representing the four gospels, to Joachim of Fiore’s four senses of Scripture (literal, moral, spiritual and anagogical) to representing constellations. I like the suggestion that they are heavenly representatives of the created order (Koester, 2014, p. 353) since so much of this portion of Revelation is permeated with creation imagery and praise of God as the creator. Yet, I love the iconography which identifies the four gospels with the images from the creatures (even if there were disagreements in the early church about which gospel was represented by which image the identification of Matthew (man/angel), Mark (lion), Luke (ox), and John (eagle) has become standard in iconography).

It is appropriate that this scene where there is continual singing has become an inspiration for the church’s singing and worship life. As I read these songs where the creatures sing “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come” I have the words and melody of the hymn by Reginald Heber and John B. Dykes “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty” and as the elders cast their thrones at the feet of the one who lives forever and ever the lines of Handel’s Messiah singing, “and he shall live forever and ever, Hallelujah!” echoes in my mind. While the songs and worship in my church or any church is probably an inadequate reflection of this vision of the heavenly worship it does point to the centrality of the worship of God for these representatives of the people of God and the whole creation.

The central proclamation of this heavenly worship is that God is the creator of all things and the one who causes creation to exist. The God of the Bible is not a creator who creates and then abandons the world, but who continues to sustain and watch over the world and God’s people. Revelation shows us a vision of blasphemous forces, represented by the dragon and the beasts, which seek to destroy the creation and usurp for themselves the worship due only to God and the lamb. The elders and the living creatures will praise God, while others will bow down before the beast. Many people in Revelation will be caught up in a lie and yet there is a time for repentance. There are those people and groups that may be unwilling to reconcile with God and yet we are shown that true worship is centered on God the creator and the lamb who has conquered who will become the central figure of the next chapter.

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Revelation 3 The Messages to the Final Three Churches

Revelation 3:1-6 The Message to Sardis

1 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead.

2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. 3 Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. 4 Yet you have still a few persons in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5 If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels. 6 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

Sardis at the time of Revelation was a city that had directly benefited from the assistance Roman empire after a devastating quake in 17 CE. With the assistance from Rome the city had been completely rebuilt and Emperor Tiberius was looked upon as the new founder of the city. It had trade associations for goldsmiths, textile, builders and was a regional center for the slave trade. There was also a large Jewish community at Sardis which was allowed to manage its own affairs and made a supply of ritually clean food possible for the Jewish community in Sardis. (Koester, 2014, pp. 310-312) The early Christians at Sardis, unlike the other churches mentioned in Revelation, do not seem to be experiencing any conflict either internally or external persecution. The message implies that the community at Sardis has acclimated to the surrounding culture too comfortably.

The community has a good name either among the churches or in the community but John views that good name as based upon a lie. The initial diagnosis of being dead should be jarring for the community, especially in a book that will also be shared with other churches. Yet, the message is one that is designed to promote repentance and perhaps even resurrection. The message implies that there is still time to change, that the patient may be at death’s door but there is a possible cure. There are people among the community who are living as the saints are supposed to live and who have not compromised with the forces in the community. The image of soiled clothes probably indicates practices which defile the individual or the community.

The image of Christ coming like a thief occurs a couple other places in the New Testament. In the gospels (Matthew 24: 43-44; Luke 12: 39-40) the image occurs within two sets of sayings designed to promote watchfulness among the hearers. Using the image of a watchmen caring for their master’s household they are urged to stay awake for just as a thief breaks in at an unexpected time, so the Son of Man comes at an unexpected hour. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul uses this image in a similar way, probably referencing back to an oral tradition of this same teaching the gospels reference (1 Thessalonians 5: 2-4). Revelation is probably pulling on this same tradition which may have been familiar to the hearers. In this exhortation to wake up, repent and be healed John uses several images to encourage the church in Sardis to change its practices and be among the white robed ones listed in the book of life.

Like the previous churches, one of the primary issues becomes the relationship between the church and the culture. Sardis, and later Laodicea, represent churches that have become to enmeshed with the surrounding culture and perhaps may be externally prosperous but, in John’s view, have betrayed something essential to being a part of the congregation of the Lord. The church in every era has to navigate this interplay between the church and the society it is a part of and finding when and how it can cooperate with the culture and when it needs to distance itself or be critical of that culture.

Revelation 3: 7-13 The Message to Philadelphia

7 “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens:

8 “I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but are lying — I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. 10 Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. 11 I am coming soon; hold fast to what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12 If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. 13 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

Philadelphia, like Sardis, had also benefited from Roman assistance and tax relief while rebuilding from the same earthquake in 17 CE. They also viewed the Roman empire positively and Christians in the community would have encountered many of the same temptations and dangers as the other seven communities faced. The primary issue for the church in Philadelphia seems to be conflict with the Jewish community in the city. It is possible that the Christian community in Philadelphia originated primarily with Jewish people and later found itself being excluded from their former community.

Here the initial image for Jesus is the one who has the key of David, who opens and whom no one will shut and who shuts and no one will open. For a community whose identity as a part of the people of God was probably being challenged these images of Christ as holding the key of David probably was a powerful recollection of that part of their identity. As I mentioned a couple times when discussion Revelation 1, John uses powerfully symbolic language to show that these new churches constitute the people of God and by extension Israel. Their former community in the synagogue may be denying their participation in the community of God and this probably leads to John’s reversal of this to the synagogue of Satan.

The language ‘synagogue of Satan’ unfortunately became one of several places within the New Testament used to justify later anti-Semitism in the church. Revelation, and the rest of the New Testament, is written in a time where the early church had very little political power and was viewed as a sect, and probably to most Jews as a heretical sect. When the church later became a non-persecuted and eventually the official religion of the empire they sometimes moved from an oppressed community to an oppressor of other religions within the realm of Christendom. It is only in the aftermath of the Holocaust that the church has begun to take a hard look at the way our treatment of Jewish communities and people was a betrayal of our own faith.

In language that anticipates later imagery they are commended to holding fast so that no one will seize their crown. Like the elders who will cast their crowns before the LORD in the next chapter they, who seem to be weak will be the kings of the kingdom. Those who have been excluded from the synagogue will now be the pillars of the temple of God. They will indeed be the pillars of the community who were once cast out. They will have God’s name and the name of the new Jerusalem, mentioned again in Revelation 21 inscribed on them. Their identity will be secure even though now their identity is challenged. The one who has named them is the one who bears the inheritance of David’s kingdom.

Image of Laodicean streetBy Rjdeadly – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19781425

 

 

Revelation 3: 14-22 The Message to Laodicea

14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation:

15 “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. 19 I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. 20 Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. 21 To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

The church in Laodicea finds itself in a community that has twice rebuilt after an earthquake in previous decades. In 20 CE the community received Roman assistance with rebuilding but in 60 CE the city was rebuilt without Roman assistance by local benefactors. This does not mean that the community did not have good relationships with the empire, but instead that the community itself had the wealth and means to be self-sufficient in their recovery from the second earthquake. The Christians in Laodicea seem to be sharing in this wealth believing they are rich, prosperous and need nothing. Throughout the New Testament, and at several places in the Hebrew Scriptures, wealth is viewed as a danger that can take a person away from trusting in God for what they need.

Christ addresses the community as the faithful and true witness as well as the ‘origin’ or ‘ruler’, depending on how one translates the Greek word arche, of God’s creation. Christ is the one who is both the source of everything the Laodiceans have as well as the rightful ruler of the creation. Like the message to Sardis, the intent of this message is to bring about a change. Sardis was unable to realize that they were at the point of death and the Laodiceans were unable to realize their tepidness. Yet, this message indicates that there is still time to turn, to invite Christ to come in and dine, to extend hospitality, service and love and to become distinctive from the surrounding community.

Both hot and cold are positive options here, much like serving wine in the ancient world where it was desirable to be mulled and hot or strained through snow and therefore cold. It is common to see references to Laodicea’s water supply being warm because of hot springs but this doesn’t seem to be true since all the cities mentioned in Revelation used water from aqueducts and were considered good quality water and additionally Laodicea’s aqueduct runs from the south while the hot springs are northwest of the city.

These early Christians may have been indistinguishable in their larger community and may have benefited from associations and practices that John considered unfaithful. Their prosperity is linked to their struggle with living under the Lordship of Christ. In John’s view they are probably too heavily invested in the world and its trappings to endure when hardship comes. Like the rocky soil in the parable of the sower (Mark 4: 1-20 and parallels) they have become ensnared by cares of the world and the lure of wealth. They are called to store up for themselves treasures in heaven (Matthew 6: 19-21) by exchanging their gold for gold refined by fire and white robes to clothe their nakedness and salve so that they might be cured of their blindness. If the church is to take upon it Israel’s role of being a light to the nations they cannot share the blindness of those same nations. The church is called to repent so that they might be a faithful witness in contrast to the witness of Babylon that will also come under the same judgment.

William Holman Hunt, Behold I Stand At the Door and Knock, Public Domain

The statement “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking” was captured in the famous image by William Holman Hunt. The image in Revelation calls on the community to open the door and invite Christ in as would be expected for hospitality in the ancient world. The community is once again invited that there is still an opportunity to open the door and share with Christ, the ruler of all the creation. In William Hunt’s image the door famously has no handled and can only be opened from the inside and is overgrown from lack of use. This passage in Laodicea has often been spiritualized towards a message of individual repentance and inviting Christ into one’s heart and that is one way the church has used this portion of Revelation. But here this is an invitation for the community to repent and to be invited to share the table and later to share in authority with Christ.

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