The Book of Jeremiah

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem by Rembrandt van Rijn 1630

Jeremiah is the first large work of scripture I worked through on this blog and this early work on Jeremiah remains influential on my thinking. Early in my experience in blogging there are some lessons I’ve learned about the process but below is a table of contents to make the posts on Jeremiah more accessible.

Review of Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet by Binyamin Lau
An Introduction to the Prophet Jeremiah
The Calling: Jeremiah 1
The Wounded God: Jeremiah 2: 1-19
Rhetorical Overkill: Jeremiah 2: 20-37
The God Who Wouldn’t Give Up: Jeremiah 3
God the Wounded Lover: Jeremiah 4: 1-4
The Siren Call: Jeremiah 4: 5-10
The Poetry of Death and Destruction: Jeremiah 4: 11-18
The Prophet’s Agony: Jeremiah 4: 19-31
Searching for the Righteous One: Jeremiah 5: 1-6
The End of the World as They Know It: Jeremiah 5: 7-17
Corrupted Justice: Jeremiah 5: 18-31
The World Turned Upside Down: Jeremiah 6: 1-8
Peace, Peace When There Is No Peace: Jeremiah 6: 9-14
The Disconnect Between Worship and Obedience: Jeremiah 6: 15-21
Not Precious Metal, Fools Gold: Jeremiah 6: 22-30
Railing Against the Temple: Jeremiah 7: 1-5
The Prophet Who Hears and the People Who Don’t: Jeremiah 7: 16-26
The City Becomes a Desolation: Jeremiah 7:27-8:3
Jeremiah 8:4-9:1 The Headstrong People and the Heartsick Prophet and God
Jeremiah 9: 2-26 Death in and of the Land
The Things that Deceive: Jeremiah 10
Jeremiah 11: From Blessing to Curse
Jeremiah 12: The Disillusioned Prophet and the God who Listens
Jeremiah 13: Weeping for Those who do not Hear
Jeremiah 14: The Broken Covenant and the Death of the Land
Jeremiah 15: Ready to Walk Away
Jeremiah 16: A Vision of Resurrection, but only through Death
Jeremiah 17: States of the Heart
Jeremiah 18: A Misshapen People
Jeremiah 19: Broken Jugs
Jeremiah 20: The Abused Prophet
Jeremiah 21: A Kingdom Laid Low
Jeremiah 22: Justice, the King, and Judgment
Jeremiah 23: A Righteous Branch and Unrighteous Prophets
Jeremiah 24: Exiles, Figs and Reversals
Jeremiah 25: Drinking the Cup of Wrath
Jeremiah 26: The Prophet, The Temple, and the Elders
Jeremiah 27: The Yoke of Babylon
Jeremiah 28: The True and False Prophets
Jeremiah 29: A Letter to the Exiles and the Recurring False Prophets
Jeremiah 30: Hope in the Midst of Hopelessness
Jeremiah 31: Out of the Nightmare A Dream for the Future
Jeremiah 32: Purchasing a Field During a Siege
Jeremiah 33: Hope in the Midst of Hopelessness
Jeremiah 34: A Broken Covenant
Jeremiah 35: The Example of the Rechabites
Jeremiah 36: The Consumed Scroll and the Indestructible Words
Jeremiah 37: The People Who Do Not Hear
Jeremiah 38: The Officials, the Prophet, the Eunuch, and the King
Jeremiah 39: The City Falls
Jeremiah 40: The Remnant
Jeremiah 41: The Murder of Gedaliah and a Shattered Hope
Jeremiah 42: A Final Prayer and a Final Response
Jeremiah 43: The Flight to Egypt
Jeremiah 44: Plummeting to the End
Jeremiah 45: The Scribe and the World Endure the Ending
Jeremiah 46: Judgment for Egypt and Hope for Jacob
Jeremiah 47: Philistia Caught in the Flood
Jeremiah 48: Against Moab
Jeremiah 49: Judgment on Other Nations
Jeremiah 50-51: The Cry Against Babylon
Jeremiah 52: Ending the Journey
A Major Completion and Transition

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Revelation 1 Opening Revelation

Diego Velazquez, Saint John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos (1619-1620)

I have struggled with how to begin this since this has seemed like a Herculean task to approach a book which has given rise to any number of wild and disparate interpretations both recently and throughout the history of the church. If the brief survey of the history of interpretation of Revelation I wrote and my own study of church history and biblical interpretation has shown me anything it is that any reading of scripture is a provisional reading that is informed by the time and position of the interpreter—and yet scripture in its own living way continues to speak across the millennia. So, it is in a sense of humility that I begin this reading of Revelation. This is a reading of one pastor who comes to this strange book with a sense of wonder and awe as we enter into the mysteries that John the Seer relates to us in his recording of this vision. I begin having some sense of where this is going because I’ve been working through the book as a whole as I attempt this beginning, so here are some aspects that inform this reading:

  • This reading is canonical in the dual sense that I am beginning with the belief that Revelation is both a part of the broader canon that Christians consider the scripture and that its placement within that canon also shapes the way we hear Revelation. The same God, the same Jesus who is witnessed to throughout the rest of the scriptures is who we encounter in Revelation. There will be portions of Revelation that can only be clear in hearing it in dialogue with the rest of scripture.
  • It is intertextual in the sense that I will often refer back to other places throughout scripture where Revelation’s images resonate. Revelation is a much clearer and richer document when one listens closely to Ezekiel, Daniel, Exodus, Psalms, Deuteronomy and the gospels and Paul’s letters. John the Seer was either a Jewish Christian or a gentile extremely well steeped in the language of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) since it is rare when Revelation does not subtly echo these scriptures.
  • That the God of Revelation is the loving God we encounter in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. This is about a God who does love the world as John 3: 16 reminds us. This is about a God who is the creator who does care about this world God created. In that sense it will be an ecological reading. It will also be a gracious reading. My work with Jeremiah and Exodus has given me some empathy for the way God’s involvement with humanity comes at a cost: God becomes brokenhearted about the state of the world and the state of God’s people.
  • The God of Revelation chooses sides and is not the unmoved mover of deist and philosophical thought. This is not a new thing in scripture. The story of the Exodus is a story of a God who chooses those who are oppressed and weak and intervenes. The book of Revelation is a similar story. Like in the book of the Exodus, we will also see God use an incredible amount of restraint allowing time and space for repentance and renewal. The cry of the saints, “How long Lord” which echoes the words of the Psalmist, indicate the cost of God’s patience and yet God will not ultimately allow the forces that work against God’s will for the world to prevail.
  • The violent language of the book of Revelation has often been a source of discomfort for interpreters, much like the more violent portions of the Hebrew Scriptures. In some ways we will see some of this language has been misinterpreted but I do think we need to wrestle with the violence that is a part of this book. Much more on this as we proceed into the images of Revelation.
  • Revelation is a profoundly anti-imperial book. Specifically, the empire of this time is the Roman empire. This also is nothing new for the scriptures. From the book of Genesis onward there has always been a suspicion of the claims of nations, kings and empires. The story of the Exodus, which is the foundational story for the Jewish people, is a story of God taking a people out of the empire of the day and creating a way for them to be a different kind of society. Revelation with its calls to ‘flee from Babylon’ stands within this tradition. In this sense it is a work that gives us a lens to understand our own interactions within our own societies, nations and world. Revelation is not the only voice within the scripture which addresses how people of faith live and work within the empire, but it is also not a lone or outlying voice in the broader scriptures.

Revelation 1:1-8

1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.

3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.

4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia:

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.

8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

Revelation, sometimes called the Apocalypse from the Greek title of the book, gets its title from the opening line which declares it is a revelation of Jesus Christ. Without entering into a long conversation about ‘apocalyptic literature’ I think perhaps a good place to start is with the meaning of the word Revelation or apocalypse. An apocalypse, in the way we normally use this term, typically means something like an event involving destruction on a catastrophic scale or something that involves the final destruction of the world. But the translation of apocalypse to revelation is telling. Revelation means something which is revealed or disclosed and that is what this book claims to be. While the book of Revelation does point to a conflict between the forces that are at work destroying the world and God’s unwillingness, as world’s Creator, to let these forces of death and destruction continue to exercise power and dominion forever it is more concerned with disclosing the images seen than anything else. The book is a book of hope filled with powerful images that continue to resonate thousands of years later. John, the named author of Revelation, writes down these visions to disclose them to church of his time and by extension to the church of our time.

The John of Revelation is probably not the same John who wrote the gospel of John and the letters of John. Ever since Dionysius of Alexandria (d. 264) showed that the two works could not come from the same person because of writing style and content the position of Revelation has been questioned. Dionysius and eventually the church accepted Revelation as a part of the canon but without apostolic authorship there would continue to be questions about the authority of Revelation. (Koester, 2014, p. 34) Yet, Revelation is a part of the collection of works we consider as our scriptures and regardless of the apostolicity of the author has been valued throughout the church’s life. John, or John the Seer as I will sometimes refer to him, attempts to put into words that which seems to defy description. His language is the language of the scriptures, what the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (or ELCA, the denomination I am a part of) in its Book of Faith initiative would refer to the first language of faith.

John considers this a prophesy and the language of this first chapter resonates strongly with the call scenes of the prophets into service to testify to the word of the Lord (see for example Isaiah 6: 1-13; Jeremiah 1: 4-10 and Ezekiel 1:1-3:11). John’s self-understanding is probably that of a prophet, one who has been called to deliver a message on behalf of God. The prophets point to a different way of understanding the world in light of God’s revelation to them. They often are unpopular with those in authority since they are calling their hearers back to God’s alternative way of living in the world. John’s message to the church should be heard in this light. This will become clearer as we approach the letters to the seven churches in chapters two and three.

John also, like Paul and other writers of the Christian epistles, is writing a letter and this first chapter holds many similarities to letters like the letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, etc. While John is addressing the seven churches in Asia (modern day Turkey) who we will encounter in the following chapters we will find the number seven is significant in the book of Revelation since it denotes completion or wholeness and so while this is a letter to seven specific churches it is also a letter or book to the larger church. Like the letters that Paul writes these introductions can densely packed with language that articulate key points of the author’s faith. These key affirmations include:

  • ‘from him who is and who was and who is to come’ this way of referring to God probably goes back to the divine name, “YHWH” that God gives Moses in Exodus 3: 13-22. The circular way of naming God without actually saying the name of God probably also reflects the desire not to violate the commandment about using the Lord’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7, Deuteronomy 5: 11)
  • ‘Seven spirits before the throne’ as mentioned above seven will appear continually throughout Revelation to denote completion or wholeness. Below we will see seven stars and seven lampstands and the seven spirits may well be connected to the seven eyes for the lamb or the seven churches.
  • Jesus Christ as ‘faithful witness,’ ‘first born of the dead’ and the ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’ uses several titles to refer to Jesus which each can be unpacked briefly. Jesus as faithful witness becomes the model or icon that the readers of Revelation are to emulate. The word for witness is the word which ‘martyr’ comes from and that is an important concept for Revelation. While being a faithful witness does not require death or suffering in a society that is established in a manner that is counter to God’s will it will often be uncomfortable and involve persecution. ‘First born of the dead’ resonates strongly with the Pauline language used to describe the impact of Jesus’ resurrection (Romans 8:29, Colossians 1: 15,18). ‘Ruler of the kings of the earth’ also resonates with Pauline language for who Christ ultimately is, even though the powers and principalities seem to exercise power they will also bow with everything on heaven and earth to the resurrected Christ (ex. Philippians 2: 9-11)
  • ‘to him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood’ again reflects the language of places like Romans 3:25 where Paul can use sacrificial language in relation to Jesus’ death on the cross. This will also be important in the gospel of John in particular in its way of describing Jesus’ death. In this light the image of Jesus as the sacrificed lamb throughout Revelation expands this image.
  • ‘made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father’ these words are a particularly audacious claim made early in the book which refers back to Exodus 19: 5-6 and point to what the role of the church is for the book of Revelation. The church is now joined to the vocation and calling of Israel, and in many ways the church becomes Israel. This is an audacious claim and yet it also points to the critical roll that John identifies for these churches receiving this message.

John then transitions into their shared hope of Christ’s return which every eye will see. Those who witnessed faithfully and those who opposed Christ will see and be confronted with the kingship of Jesus. It will be an event that impacts all the people of the earth, not only Israel or the church. Much like the closing of the book these initial confessions end like a prayer.

Finally, in this opening is the first use of ‘Alpha and Omega’ and another reference to the one ‘who is and was and who is to come.’ This is significant because in this revelation of Jesus Christ we will soon see this language paralleled in the description of Jesus and this will become one of the several places where the New Testament points to a close correlation between Jesus and the LORD the God of Israel. In the Christological controversies of the early church where they attempted to find language to talk about Jesus the New Testament’s way of using titles reserved for God for Jesus would prove decisive as the early Christians began to understand the Jesus was a revelation of the God of Israel.

Revelation 1: 9-11

9 I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”

John indicates his connection with the churches receiving the letter. He is one of them who shares in their struggles who live in the time in between the resurrection and Christ’s return. In this time the powers and principalities continue to call for allegiance and at times worship and yet as followers of the resurrected Christ and the LORD the God of Israel they are called to have only one God, one Lord. John is on Patmos, an island in the Aegean Sea about forty miles southwest of Miletus and Ephesus on the sea route to Corinth and Athens. John may have been sent to Patmos by regional authorities because of his testimony but he is also the only person we have a witness of being sent to Patmos and there is no evidence it was a prison colony. Yet, John is isolated from these seven communities he is writing to on that day he receives the vision. Like the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures and the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians he is, “in the spirit” most likely on a Sunday (the day of the Lord’s resurrection) but possibly on a Saturday (the Sabbath). The voice like a loud trumpet resembles the language of Exodus 19:16 and 20:18 where God speaks to the people. Yet the voice like a trumpet is hearable as language and instructs John to write what he sees and send it on to the seven churches.

Revelation 1: 12-20

Goslar, Friedhof Hildersheimer Strasse, Grabmonument aus dem 19. Jahrhundert, Christusdarstellun nach Offenbarung

12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14 His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.

17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19 Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

John turns toward the voice mentioned above and the begins to write what he sees in the book we have. The vision is full of symbolism and echoes of the scriptures. ‘One like the Son of Man,’ is an image that goes back to Daniel 7:13-14, “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being (son of man) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” This is what is referred to when Jesus uses the ‘Son of Man’ title in the gospels. Because of this usage by Jesus in the gospels we shouldn’t be surprised that the speaker is Jesus. Yet, Jesus also has the traits of the Ancient one (God) spoken of immediately prior to the ‘Son of Man’ quotation from Daniel “As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head was like pure wool; his throne was like fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment and the books were opened.” (Daniel 7: 9-10) We begin to see the ways in which Revelation links Jesus to the Lord the God of Israel, something that will continue throughout this initial vision. The initial description of the resurrected Christ appearing to John is an awesome and fear inducing sight for the seer.

The sharp two-edged sword which comes out of his mouth will be a recurring image in Revelation. On the one hand, it does refer to speech as in Isaiah 49:2 when the servant of the Lord’s mouth is like a sharp sword. On the other hand, it is also the force by which Christ defeats evil, how truth overcomes the lies. The word of God is never a tame thing that should be wielded carelessly, it can cut both the church and the nations as it will here in Revelation.

John, overwhelmed by the image, falls down at the feet of the risen Christ, and unlike later when he bows down to another messenger he is not corrected. Falling at the feet of the risen Christ is an acceptable response and John is met with encouragement. “Do not be afraid” is a frequent instruction upon hearing from God or receiving God’s message. Now Jesus uses words for himself that are patterned after the words the Lord God uses, he is the ‘first and last’ paralleled to ‘Alpha and Omega’ and ‘the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever;” paralleled to ‘him who is and who was and who is to come.’

Jesus now holds the keys to Death and Hades. Even though in this time the forces of destruction can kill the faithful and send them to the realm of Death and Hades the book of Revelation looks towards that time when Christ claims this power and opens the realm of Death and Hades causing them to surrender those held there. Death remains real for the followers of the risen Christ, but it is not the final reality. As Paul could say, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6: 5)

The image of seven stars and the seven lampstands is one of the few explained images in the book of Revelation itself. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands are the seven churches themselves. This image takes on an additional resonance when one realizes that the lampstands in the image is like the lampstand for the tabernacle and later temple (Exodus 25: 17-22). This is another place where Revelation makes an audacious connection between the churches and Israel. As mentioned above when discussing Revelation 1:6 when the calling of Israel is used now the imagery of Israel also gets linked to the churches.

 

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Revelation’s Interpretation Through Time

An Old Woman Reading, Probably the Prophetess Hannah by Rembrandt (1631)

G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Though St. John the Evangelist saw any strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.”(Richard B. Hays and Stefan Alkier, 2012, p. 11) Particularly in the last couple hundred years we have seen some strange creatures emerge as interpreters of Revelation. Certain groups within Christianity, who are looking for certainty and answers, have found the book of Revelation as an irresistible puzzle to decode as they attempt to find a way to predict the future. Yet, the church has always puzzled with how to use the book of Revelation. While its original readers would have heard this as a text in a way that helped make sense of their position as a small minority in a hostile empire the position of the church in society would continue change. How does a church which eventually would become the religion of the land deal with these odd visions? Sometimes Revelation would be virtually ignored within the larger canon of the scriptures, while at other times it would capture the imagination of writers, interpreters, and artists.

John, the stated author of Revelation, probably writes somewhere between the year 80 and 100. The book of Revelation, as it is originally written, is a sharp challenge to the claims made by the Roman empire. As Christianity strove for recognition within the Roman empire Christian apologists tended to distance the anti-imperial rhetoric from the way they discussed Revelation. Revelation’s images would be used by early witnesses of the western church, like Justin Martyr and Ireneaus, in their apologetics to attempt to show how Christianity was related to Judaism. Ireneaus in his conflict with Marcion used the image of the four beasts around the throne to argue why there should be four gospels in contrast to Marcion who wanted only an edited version of Luke’s gospel along with Paul’s letters. In the eastern church the book of Revelation received even less usage. Dionysius of Alexandria (d. ca. 254) showed that the Revelation and the Gospel of John could not have been written by the same person due to literary form, writing style, and theological content. The church historian Eusebius (d. 339) listed Revelation as one of the recognized books but acknowledged that some grouped it with the rejected writings. The first known commentary on Revelation wasn’t written until the end of the second century by Victorinus of Pettau (d. 304) and this work would inform many future writings on Revelation. As Craig Koester can relate on this commentary, “In his view, the vision of the Lamb breaking the seals on God’s scroll shows that Christ reveals the meaning of Scripture through his death and resurrection (In Apoc. 1.4; 4.1-5:3; Huber, “Aspekte”). Like many modern interpreters, Victorinus observed that the beast has traits of the Roman emperors, especially Nero.” (Koester, 2014, p. 33)

In the time after the edict of Milan (313), which made Christianity tolerated throughout the Roman empire, the church had a new struggle: to define the faith. Within this struggle to articulate how they would talk about who Jesus was and how Jesus was related to God images from Revelation would continue to play their role along with the gospels and letters of Paul. Particularly the identity of Christ as the Alpha and the Omega would become decisive for the way the church would talk about Jesus in the time after the council of Nicea (325). In this time artwork of Christ victory and reign over the world would begin to integrate Revelation motifs. Yet, the Roman empire itself would be challenged by both internal and external forces and as Christianity continued to exist in this world Revelation would provide some of the theologians of the church a lens to view the world. St. Augustine’s adapted a reading of Revelation (from Tyconius) which saw a conflict between the city of God and the city of the world: interpreting both the present age but also the internal spiritual struggle between the powers of sin and grace in the life of the believer. St. Jerome, best known for his translation of the bible into Latin, created his own spiritualistic reading of Revelation where separating oneself from Babylon means resisting sin, but it may also involve retreating to a monastic lifestyle.

The Medieval Period (500-1000) would see Rome’s empire divided: North Africa would be captured by Islamic forces, Germanic kingdoms would rise in the west and the Byzantine empire would rise in the east. It was a time of plagues and instability, of invasions by Vikings from the north and Magyars from the Balkans. During this time of instability the church continued to grow in power and influence. There would be frequent calls for reform of the church but frequently these reforms would be resisted by the church’s leadership. This resistance made some turn Revelation’s vision of Babylon into a critique of the papacy—which would continue into the sixteenth century and beyond. In the late Medieval period, Joachim of Fiore’s (d. 1202) mystical view of history where there were three ages (the age of the Father, the age of the Son and the age of the Spirit) reawakened an interest in the thought of Revelation. He believed that history was progressing towards the age of the Spirit and reforming pope might lead the way into that age. In his view the seven heads of the dragon symbolized the persecutors of the church from Herod and Nero to the Muslim warrior Saladin in his own time.

The age of reform in the sixteenth century would bring about very different views about the book of Revelation. Erasmus (d. 1536) reopened the question about the status of Revelation, and Revelation held little attraction for his piety centered on the imitation of Christ. Luther (d. 1546) also questioned the place of Revelation, especially since in his view, “Christ is neither taught nor known in it.” (LW 35: 399) Yet, even as Revelation would be added at the end of the New Testament with Hebrews, James, and Jude (the other books Luther questioned) and be unnumbered we also see within the artists of Luther’s time the capturing of Revelation’s images. For example, Revelation was the only book in Luther’s German NT that was fully illustrated by woodcuts from Lucas Cranach and Philip Nicolai (d. 1608) used images from Revelation to respond to an outbreak of plague that took thousands of lives by writing “Wachet Auf,” or “Wake, awake, for night is flying.”

Although Zwingli also believed that Revelation was not a biblical book and it would be the only book in the New Testament that Calvin would not write a commentary on, the reformed church’s theological belief in an orderly history allowed many later writers to see Revelation as a part of God’s prophetic outlying of how history would unfold. In the seventeenth century figures like John Napier, Joseph Mede and even Isaac Newton became fascinated with using mathematics to attempt to decode the imagery of Revelation. They desired to see order even within the book of Revelation and that showed God’s overarching providence. The anabaptist movement was also heavily influenced by Revelation. In 1525 Thomas Müntzer would call for the common people to take up arms as instruments of the four horsemen bringing the wrath of God to the world. Müntzer’s rebellion would be dealt with brutally by the armies of the authorities. Other anabaptist communities would form communities of purity and nonviolence interpreting the book as an image of the church’s spiritual life on earth.

Music continued to be a place where the images of Revelation would resonate. Handel’s Messiah, focused on the hopeful aspects of Revelation’s imagery and worship. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was written by Julia Ward Howe in 1862 to advocate for the abolition of slavery and turned these images to rally support for the Northern war effort. Robert Lowery would use the image of the river at the end of Revelation for consolation in “Shall We Gather at the River.” Revelation would figure prominently in African American worship of the time and several songs, perhaps most famously, “When the Saints Go Marching In” utilize imagery from Revelation.

Futuristic interpretations begin to arise in the 1800s particularly in England and the United States. When the French Revolution brought in an era of terror and conquest rather that hope and peace, interpreters began to lose the optimism that reason would bring us into God’s kingdom and began to look for a sudden, cataclysmic return of Christ. In the United States, William Miller (d. 1849), whose theological heritage would lead to the Seventh Day Adventists, attempted to predict from Daniel and Revelation when Christ would return. When October 22, 1844, his predicted date, passed he continued to look for mistakes in his calculations and when he died in 1849 others would continue this work. One of the most popular interpretive frameworks in the United States is Dispensationalism which goes back to Nelson Darby (d. 1882) and was brought in popular form to the United States by Cyrus Scofield (d. 1921) in his Scofield Reference Bible. Two markers of this interpretation are that Revelation 4-22 prophesied times yet to come, rather than referring to events that have happened, and that the faithful church would be raptured (removed) prior to the seven years of tribulation on earth. This theology would be put into narrative form in the Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey and the Left Behind series by Timothy LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

Revelation has proved illusive to being locked into a single interpretation, and perhaps that is a part of why it resonates. Its images are powerful and poetic, and particularly for the artists and musicians of the church Revelation has provided some fertile ground. There are interpretations, like Dispensationalism, which I don’t find particularly helpful and do not make sense from the perspective of a first century audience or for the way I read scripture. As an heir of Luther’s tradition, I can understand his hesitance in assigning Revelation a place within the canon alongside the gospels and Paul’s letters, and yet I am convinced that read alongside these writings we can hear Revelation as a witness to Christ. My goal is to attempt for a reading of Revelation that can be faithful to its original intent but also continue to speak to the church in its context. I am humble enough to realize that I am a part of the long history of readers attempting to make sense of this book and yet I do believe that we need, in a time where Revelation’s imagery is all around us in popular culture. I am heavily indebted to Craig Koester for the above discussion on the history of interpretation and you can find a much fuller witness to the history of interpretation in his commentary on Revelation. (Koester, 2014, pp. 29-64)

 

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Christina’s World

She reclines among the grass of the field as the breeze gently blows across the plain
The only sounds are the sounds of the buzzing bees which dance across the grass
Searching for the scattered wildflowers which splash color upon the early spring’s brown
While the musty earth awakens from the long slumber while snow blanketed the ground
Waiting for the suns rays to warm the ground and open the seeds left at the end of fall
She reclines among the grass of the field as the wind moves over the fecund creation
 
She sees the humble dwelling of humanity with its walls and roofs to keep out the rain
As off in the distance the clouds thunder, announcing the advent of the April showers
Which come from the heavens bearing the gift of water and the promise of new life
Baptizing the ground with the joyous tears of God to awaken a season of resurrection
And as a daughter of Eve she awaits the rains which renew the creation’s fruitfulness
She dares to sit among the grass of the field as the rains sweep in to cleanse her anew
 
Perhaps the time will come when she runs through the rain back to the waiting house
But for the moment she sits surrounded by the sights and sounds of the prairie
She breathes in the scents carried on the wind and drinks from the celestial waters
Her hands run across the blades of last year’s grass and rest on the unturned plain
While life continues to cast off its long season of hibernation to stretch towards the sun
As she too arises from soil to sing and dance songs of spring with rhythm of life

The poem is inspired by Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World which can be viewed on the MoMA website

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The Ruins

The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel by Louis Daguerre (1824)

The bone-chilling spring rain fell upon the wind worn stones of the ruin
Melting away the ice and the snow which blanketed the dead tower
The water which slowly seeped into the stone leaking out through the cracks
Another year’s detritus pooling in the corners where once nobles talked
Some ancient lords and ladies once gathered in this hall to hold court
As the looked down the hill at the serf’s slaving in the fields to sow the seed
Believing the order would stand like one stone placed upon another
That mortar and stone would hold back the threatening winds
Keeping them safe and warm within sheltering arms of the mighty fortress
But now nothing remains of that long dead world but the shattered stones
Serving as the grave marker of their neatly ordered world where they reigned
For the king is dead, the queen is gone, no knights or archers protect the kingdom
As the earth reclaims the stone that was taken from her womb and placed on a hill
Now the soil raises up its green memorial as life emerges in the midst of death

O, what stories would these stones tell, of wars waged and blood spilt
For within the ghostly shadows there is a haunted air that hangs
To examine the dust that has fallen from these stones is to find fear
The fear of a world that has reached its end as time marched mercilessly
Terror of those who thought their way would last forever and still
The world has moved on bringing with it the ending of the old order
For the foundations have been shaken, the towers have fallen
No more does the warrior defend the reign and the old ones are forgotten
Demons and devils now dance in the abandoned bones of the castle
And feast upon the unwitting traveler who dares to come too close
By the rivers that once watered the fertile field that spread below
But now only feed the creatures brave enough to enter into the wasteland
We sat down and we wept as we remembered our Zion our home long lost
Now a haunt to jackals and a home to vultures and the lost dreams of yesterday

 

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Transitioning into Revelation

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

As a part of my personal growth and dedication to these strange, wonderful scriptures I’ve attempted to lean into some of the texts I am less familiar with and there is an unseen method to my madness. I have enough background knowledge to know that some books pull heavily on the imagery of others while others naturally flow in a narrative sequence. I’ve grown immensely in my faith and my love for the scriptures in my work with Exodus, Deuteronomy, Esther, Psalms 1-41, Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah and Haggai. I thought Song of Songs or Song of Solomon was going to be the next book I approached, and that one will probably come after Revelation and Psalms 42-50, but I attempt to listen when people ask about something specific and living in Texas people are curious about Revelation.

Revelation is the first book in the New Testament that I am going through completely here on Sign of the Rose. Part of that is intentional, as a Christian pastor I spend more time with the Gospels than any other portion of scripture and early in my ministry I wanted to go back to get a PhD in New Testament studies focusing on the Pauline letters. After fourteen years in ministry I felt very comfortable in multiple reading perspectives for large portions of the New Testament and I’ve found in particular the work of Richard B. Hays which points to the allusions of the Hebrew Scriptures in the New Testament. Like most Christian ministers my comfort with the Hebrew Scriptures (commonly called the Old Testament) was limited and so I’ve attempted to grow in this area. Ideally to approach the book of Revelation I would have preferred to work through the books of Daniel and Ezekiel first since Revelation uses imagery from both of these books frequently and Daniel, especially, is the closest in style to most of Revelation’s imagery and form.

In my tradition, Lutheran and specifically ELCA Lutheran, the book of Revelation is not often utilized. We sometimes may point out perspectives that we don’t agree with in how the imagery of Revelation is misused. Sometimes we have laughed to ourselves about various groups that have boldly posited the dates of Christ’s return. It is far easier to critique or challenge someone else’s perspectives and constructs rather than contribute one’s own. I can’t claim to speak for all Lutherans or even on behalf of one denomination, but rather as one pastor who diligently attempts to use the tools of my tradition, my own experiences and gifts of reason and knowledge and a love for these strange scriptures that point us to the God of the people of Israel and the God who the early Christians would come to know through the witness and revelation of Jesus.

I do think before moving through individual chapters it is helpful to understand how Revelation has been used (or frequently not commented on) by the church across its history so the next post in this series will look briefly at the history of interpretation. Maybe I’m the only person who finds that interesting, but it is helpful for me to understand the way the Christian church has approached this book to understand what pitfalls are there.

If you come to these posts looking for me to explain exactly how the world is going to end I want to warn you up front that you will be disappointed. Much of the misinterpretation of Revelation goes into not paying attention to the rich and allusive language of this work and attempt to lock it down into a series of events that must happen. Revelation has a powerful resonance for today’s world but not as a tool for interpreting the future, but rather as a lens to look at the present. Many recent interpreters, particularly from American and English evangelical traditions, fundamentally misread this book because they assign to God’s plan the things that are God unveiling the way humans have brought death and destruction to the world. They try to make the crucified lamb into the conquering lion rather than Revelation’s reversal of this image to turn the lion into a lamb. Yet, it still has a powerful resonance which can at times be uncomfortable-especially in the places where the United States, my home country, has attempted to emulate the parts of Rome that Revelation parodies. It also speaks to a church that finds itself in various situations: from complete acculturation with the narrative of the nation to finding itself a persecuted entity.

Ultimately, anyone reading this is entitled to their own reading of Revelation. It continues to evoke new readings in culture, art and music-some faithful and some obviously not to the author’s original message. Welcome for those journeying with me into this journey with this strange, evocative, powerful and sometimes confusing vision of John on Patmos. May these humble reflections be my own offering cast before the throne of the one who is worthy to receive glory, honor and power. (Revelation 4:11)

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Theological Influence: Ralph Quere

 

Professor Ralph Quere was one of my teachers at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa who died last week. As an incoming student with a degree in civil and environmental engineering and several years as an officer in the army, I had very little background in the types of thinking that I would need for the study of theology that are part of the formation of pastors. Ralph was one of my early teachers who had the challenge of helping me learn how to think differently. He didn’t normally teach the two semesters of church history that make up the first year of seminary, but due to the other church history teacher being on sabbatical he taught my year. Additionally, I would have Ralph as a teacher for Lutheran Confessions, and then in my final year I took electives studying Jaroslav Pelikan’s five volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine as well as a jointly taught course as a dialogue between Presbyterian and Lutheran confessions and teachings.

One of the impact he made on me had less to do with the content of his teaching and everything to do with his attitude towards his students and life in general. He was a person who genuinely seemed to enjoy teaching, care for his students and that could make even a normally dull topic more engaging. I still remember some of the ways he illustrated the difference between the way Luther and Calvin understood communion, or some of his ways of explaining the early church’s wrestling with the two natures of Christ or the language around the Trinity. Seminary is a very challenging experience for most people because it forces you to re-examine what you believe and why you believe it. While I enjoyed many of my other classes, it was those semesters on the early church and reformation era history that helped me stay grounded by encountering the way the church had struggled with how to talk about God and faith. Ralph introduced me to the writings of Ireneaus, Augustine, Luther and many more of our ancestors in the faith and helped me to become curious about the story of Christianity. He helped me to understand the confessional tradition that the Lutheran church was formed by and how these five-hundred-year-old documents still inform the life and faith of the church. He helped me appreciate the witness of Martin Luther and the other early Lutheran teachers and writers. He forced me to rememorize Luther’s Small Catechism which continues to be a useful part of my ministry today as I can easily call to mind the words Luther intended for parents to use to teach the faith to their children. In his own subtle way, he gave me the tools to transition from thinking like an engineer or a military officer to thinking theologically. He broadened my horizons of how to think about the church and how to approach my faith and for that I am grateful.

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