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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Revelation 2 The Messages to the First Four Churches

Revelation 2: 1-7 The Message to Ephesus

1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands:

 2 “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. 3 I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6 Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.

The next two chapters are made up of seven messages to the seven churches of Asia. While each message is directed to a specific church dealing with specific challenges these messages also allow the reader to see their own community in light of the struggles and triumphs of these churches. Each message shares a basic pattern:

Introduction
Commendation
Reproof
Call to repent
Commendation for resistance to false messages
Conclusion/Promise

All these cities shared a number of common features being a part of the Roman empire: they all had populations that mixed Romans, Greeks, and Jewish populations as well, all the Christian groups in these cities were small minorities in a sea of polytheistic religious practices including the worship of the emperor who had to navigate life in a complex world where society and religion were closely intermingled, and all of these cities were dependent on their connection to Rome for trade and it was common for local leaders to attempt to pay tribute to Rome. Contrary to what many people would guess, worshipping of the Roman emperor as a ‘god’ or a ‘son of a god’ seems to have emerged not in Rome but in the provinces where local officials were attempting to demonstrate their loyalty and curry favor with the empire.

Monumental Gate in Ephesus dedicated to Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of god and high priest and the members of his family By Hawkeye58, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3669323

Ephesus was a port city that relied upon trade. Artemis was one of the major deities worshipped in Ephesus and often being a part of a trade in the ancient world was associated with a temple. When Acts 19 relates the story of Paul being in Ephesus we can see the connection between the trade of the silversmiths, the temple of Artemis and the way in which Paul’s message was viewed not only as a different religious sect but a challenge to the economy of the city and was enough to cause a riot. Ephesus was also a port where slaves were traded along with all other forms of commerce.

In the introduction to the message of the church in Ephesus’ angel we are directed back to the image of Christ which John initially sees in Revelation 1, the seven stars and seven lampstands. The church in Ephesus is commended for its discernment between true and false apostles and their endurance in their allegiance to Jesus. Craig Koester suggests that where they have fallen is related to this: “the problem seems to be that their opposition to false teachers has led to a loss of love for other believers. Therefore, the Ephesians are called to do the work they did at first, which would have been acts of service for others.” (Koester, 2014, p. 269) This is one of the challenges Christians of many times have had to deal with. It is too common for communities that become rigid in their boundaries to become suspicious and hostile to outsiders, but Christian communities were to be communities of hospitality, service and love and yet remain true to their commitments to the gospel in a pluralistic world. They are called to repentance, to turn back to their first love and if they fail to repent they ultimately will fail to be church. The image of their lampstand being removed also means that the community has been symbolically removed.

The Nicolaitans are mentioned for the first time here. We don’t know much about this group. It is often conjectured that they were willing to eat meat offered to idols, like some of the believers Paul addressed at Corinth (1 Corinthians 8). This educated guess makes sense in a world where meat was often available at festivals (in a world before refrigeration most times when you ate meat would be at festivals and almost every festival in the ancient world would have religious aspects). Ultimately the Nicolaitans probably advocated for a less distinctive Christianity where people could still partake in the public events and trade groups associated with local and Roman customs, authorities and powers. To John this level of accommodation betrays their allegiance to the one who holds the seven stars and seven lampstands.

In the conclusion we have the first use of one of Revelation’s favored words: conquer (Greek nikao). This word has aspects of conquering in military, sporting and in the terms of remaining faithful and it will be important to watch how Revelation redefines this term in light of Christ victory (conquest). This Greek word is probably best known today in its use by the giant athletic shoe and clothing company and cultural icon Nike. Those in Ephesus are commended to conquer in light of Christ’s conquest which comes through love and steadfastness. If they conquer they are promised to eat from the tree of life which is mentioned in Genesis 3 and reappears in Revelation 22.

Revelation 2: 8-11 The Message to Smyrna

 8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life:

 9 “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.

The second message to the church in Smyrna is shorter and reflects a different situation for the church being addressed. The church in Smyrna is undergoing affliction and poverty yet their faith seems to be strong. Their steadfastness in this cultural has probably had an economic cost, but instead of storing up treasures on earth this community seems to have placed their riches in heaven where neither moth nor rust consume (Matthew 19-21). They have resisted assimilation into the ways of the empire and local culture. They may also be experiencing conflict with the Jewish community or Christians that have argued for retaining the practices of the Jewish law.

As mentioned above trade in the ancient world was also linked with both religious and political practices that many early Christians may have found troubling. There was no separation of church and state like we can discuss in modern times. Successful merchants were expected to show patronage to both the civic projects which would pay homage to the Roman empire and to show their devotion to the appropriate deities for their trade. Christians and Jews both would have resisted this. Jews within the empire were known and had some level of protection for their practice. Within the Roman empire, with its emphasis on piety, security, concord and peace, there were many who were intrigued by a religion like Judaism with its focus on the law. As Christianity and Judaism begin to move farther apart in this period the early Christians probably lost the shelter of being known as a Jewish movement and may have encountered animosity from Jewish people not wanting to be associated with what was perceived as a heretical and dangerous movement.

The term ‘synagogue of Satan’ sets up an opposition between the ‘congregation of the Lord.’ In Revelation’s time the conflict was fresh and the early Christians were a very small group within the empire. There probably was some sense of betrayal by those in the synagogues over their exclusion or perhaps even identification to authorities. Yet this term has an unfortunate history within the church. The church would in the span of two centuries move from being a small group sometimes actively persecuted within the empire and other times excluded from commerce and the broader society to an accepted and eventually the official religion of the empire. The church as a power within Roman and other societies would use this and other passages in the New Testament as justification for their later persecution of the Jewish people. The connection of the church and the synagogue would be lost only to be recently appreciated again.

This message is one of encouragement for a community either enduring or about to endure hardship. John mentions imprisonment as a part of the suffering they will endure and to remain faithful until death. In documents shortly after Revelation’s composition we start to see the early church writing about early martyrs like Polycarp, Perpetua, Felicity, Ptolemaeus and many others. Their steadfast witness would become an important illustration of the content of their hope. Those who conquer will be given the crown of life, and perhaps they will see themselves among the elders casting their crowns before the throne. The resurrection was central to the hope of the early church and the witness of those willing to be faithful unto death gave a new meaning to the word which is translated as witness (martyr). In light of the militaristic images throughout much of Revelation we see now the church in Smyrna addressed like soldiers going into battle, and yet their conquering will not be through taking other lives but in the willingness to give up their own on the model of Christ.

Revelation 2: 12-17 The Message to Pergamum

12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword:

 13 “I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication. 15 So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the -churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.

The third message is addressed to the church in Pergamum and it has a two-sided message of encouragement and repentance. They are living in a culture that is opposed to the Lordship of Christ and in Antipas we see evidence of the only person in these messages who has been killed for his faith at this point. In a culture that called for them to assimilate to the practices of the community around them and to pay homage to the emperor the early Christians found themselves labeled as atheist and disturbers of the peace.

Pergamum was a city where the imperial cult was a source of pride. As mentioned above the worship of Caesar as a god was practiced more commonly throughout the provinces as a way of showing their piety, devotion and to curry favor with Rome. They established the first provincial temple dedicated to Augustus and the goddess of Rome after receiving permission to establish a sacred precinct to Augustus in 29 BCE (Koester, 2014, p. 284). Rome’s economic and military power became enshrined as a civil religion where the emperor and the might of Rome was lifted up, honored and worshipped.

Pergamum Theater By Bernard Gagnon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commo
ns.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42275209

The early Christians would have met strong resistance in Pergamum for their unwillingness to participate in the civic religious festivals and honors. Yet, in the midst of this there are apparently some in the community who are trying to find a way to remain connected to the society and a part of the church. There would have been strong pressure to accommodate with the culture in both eating and participating in some of these rituals.

The reference to the stories of Balak and Balaam from Numbers 22-25 may have indicated some Jewish background for this community or at least familiarity with this story from the people of Israel’s approach to the promised land. Balaam is commissioned by King Balak of Moab to curse the people of Israel as they moved toward Moab but, after the incident with a talking donkey saving Balaam from the angel of the LORD, Balaam extends three blessings to Israel. Yet, the people of Israel at Shittim begin to have sexual relations with the women of Moab and are invited to participate in the worship of other gods and this kindles the LORD’s anger at this infidelity to God’s calling of them as the LORD’s chosen people who are to have no other gods. John uses this story to chastise those who he feels have been unfaithful to their calling by participating in these practices. The Nicolaitans are mentioned in connection with this and probably are willing to take part in these festivals and eat the food offered there. John wants those in the congregation participating in this that they have aligned themselves with the forces opposed to God and that Christ will be making war against these forces.

Fornication in scripture does not always mean sexual immorality. Most frequently this term is used metaphorically to refer to idolatry (ex. Hosea 1,2, Jeremiah 3,). It can also refer to participating in commercial activities that were viewed as unfaithful (and this is a common use in Revelation). Sometimes fornication is literally fornication but frequently in the prophets and Revelation it is a metaphorical unfaithfulness through idolatrous and commercial practices.

To those who conquer there is the promise of manna and a white stone with a new name on it. Manna is the bread that the LORD fed the Israelites with in the journey in the wilderness from Egypt to the promised land (Exodus 16: 4-8). The white stone could have a couple of meanings in the society: indicating a positive vote, a token of admission or as a stone of protection like in an amulet. I find the idea of the positive vote most likely since voting in the ancient world was often done by placing a small stone in an urn and typically a white stone was a positive vote while a black stone was a negative vote. The name on the stone is probably the name of Christ but could be a new name given to the individual believer as a sign of their new identity.

Revelation 2: 18-29 The Message to Thyatira

 18 “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze:

 19 “I know your works — your love, faith, service, and patient endurance. I know that your last works are greater than the first. 20 But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication. 22 Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; 23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve. 24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call ‘the deep things of Satan,’ to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden; 25 only hold fast to what you have until I come. 26 To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end, I will give authority over the nations; 27 to rule them with an iron rod, as when clay pots are shattered — 28 even as I also received authority from my Father. To the one who conquers I will also give the morning star. 29 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

The message to the church of Thyatira is predominantly addressed to a faction within the church associated with a woman named Jezebel here. The community is growing in their practices of faithfulness, hospitality, service and endurance with exception to this group and for those who have not associated with this group the are only called to hold fast.

Jezebel is a reference to the wife of King Ahab, daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians who is in direct opposition to the prophet Elijah and along with King Ahab turns Israel away from worshipping the LORD the God of Israel to worshipping Baal (I Kings 16: 30-22:40). John and this woman apparently had struggled for authority in the church and John had probably used the language of Jezebel to name her in previous incidents. The woman titled Jezebel was probably a resident member of the congregation and so that provided an additional challenge for John who was not. As mentioned above the fornication is probably a metaphorical use of the term where her followers participated in the society’s religious and commercial practices in a way that John deemed idolatrous and unfaithful. The ‘deep things of Satan’ is probably a parody of the ‘deep things of God’ where some group claims to have some deeper knowledge of God’s will or intention. As in Daniel 2:22 where God reveals the deep and hidden things or 1 Corinthians 2: 10 where the Spirit searches even the depths of God, there may have been some claim made by this group of some deeper knowledge of God’s will that John denies. In language that parallels Jeremiah 17:10, John now sets this group apart as one under God’s judgment for their deeds.

The community that conquers is now to rule alongside Christ. They will also receive the promised ruler, the morning star, who is Christ. This is also the only use of Son of God in Revelation, although Jesus will refer to God as Father, and the community who will eventually receive the morning star and Son of God cannot extend those titles to anyone else. In a society where Caesar was lifted up as a son of a god this exclusive claim that the early Christians made in their society had political consequences. Yet, they look forward to a time when the world is reversed and the faithful ones rule the nation rather than those Revelation will later label as monstrous.

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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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