Matthew 24: 29-31 Learning to Read Scriptures and the Times
Parallel Mark 13: 24-27; Luke 21: 25-28
29 “Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. 30 Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
Through suffering comes a new hope, and through the time of affliction a way of understanding scripture emerges. This brief passage brings together imagery from the prophets to help sustain the community in the midst of the troubling events for the community and the troubling signs in the cosmos. Throughout the gospel of Matthew, the community has been warned that following Christ will not lead to a life free of suffering, rather it is a community that learns to find God’s blessing in the midst of persecution. Suffering and glory are bound together. This may run against the cultural version of Christianity in the United States which in H. Richard Niebuhr’s famously described as:
A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross. (Niebuhr 1937, 150)
These initial disciples of Jesus believed in a God who would judge the world of sinful men and women, and that the only Christ they would know would be the crucified and resurrected one. In a culture where there are numerous churches which claim to be Christian who proclaim a gospel of prosperity based on faith and belonging, these passages seem out of place and may be ignored in some and recast in terms of glory by others. But Matthew wants us to learn how to read scriptures in a way that can hold suffering and salvation together. Christine McSpadden reflections on the actions of Herod in Matthew 2 are helpful here:
We may be disappointed that the gospel does not at this point remove the scandal of innocent suffering, on which so many would-be believers have stumbled. No, what the gospel does instead point to how inextricably the mystery of salvation is bound up with the mystery of human evil. (McSpadden 2003, 139)
Human evil and the devilish resistance to the kingdom of God’s coming bring about suffering for the disciples. Yet, the events that the community of Christ followers are participating in is a cosmic struggle reflected not only in the suffering of these disciples but in the very movements of the sun, moon, and stars. Yet, for the hearer familiar with the language of scripture, Matthew weaves in three images from the prophets. From Joel:
The sun and moon are darkened and the stars withdraw their shining (Joel 2:10, 3: 15)
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. (Daniel 7: 13-14)
And from Isaiah:
And on that day, a great trumpet will be blown, and those lost in the land of Assyria and those who were driven out of the lang of Egypt will come and worship the LORD on the holy mountain of Jerusalem. (Isaiah 27: 13)
Each of these allusions point to the regathering of God’s people and the revealing of God’s action and the ending of the time of judgment for the faithful ones. The ‘oppression’ of those days and the signs in the heavens which affect the heavenly bodies can be read by these faithful ones as signs to continue to endure. As the parables immediately following this will highlight, all these things are signs to be ready but they do not give a time or day to look for. Yet, they live in trust that when the Son of Man is finally revealed to the nations then the tribes of the earth will mourn that they could not see where God approached them. But for the faithful it will be a time when they are gathered from their dispersion among the nations to worship their God.
 This again is Greek word thlipsis which occurs frequently in this chapter
As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2 Then he asked them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 5 For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!and they will lead many astray. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be faminesand earthquakes in various places: 8 all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
9 “Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. 10 Then many will fall away,and they will betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this good newsof the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.
15 “So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), 16 then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; 17 the one on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; 18 the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. 19 Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! 20 Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath. 21 For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. 22 And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. 23 Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’or ‘There he is!’ — do not believe it. 24 For false messiahsand false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25 Take note, I have told you beforehand. 26 So, if they say to you, ‘Look! He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look! He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.
Among Christians in the United States, this chapter which is sometimes called the ‘little apocalypse’ has become difficult to hear for two opposing reasons. The first reason is the way this, and other texts in both the New Testament and Hebrew Scriptures often labeled apocalyptic have been used and obsessed over in various Christian theologies and groups which focus on the return or coming (Greek parousia) of Christ and the advent of God’s kingdom almost like a script out of a horror movie where a vengeful God inflicts God’s wrath on all who oppose God’s will. While there is a grain of truth in this perspective when it comes to God’s judgment, it is helpful to remember that the grain of truth has often been overwhelmed by a barn full of chaff laid upon it in many modern Christian theologies. The second struggle is that the enlightenment has regarded the apocalyptic as an embarrassment and has often attempted to distance itself from the concept of God’s intervention in the world. It is important to realize that what we often transform into fear was the hope of the early followers of Jesus, they longed for Christ’s return and expected it and were willing to endure the struggles of their time to proclaim what they felt was a gospel of hope. This message also helped the early church endure the loss of several key symbols to the Jewish worldview and to see the suffering of the present as the painful but ultimately life-giving birth pangs of God’s new kingdom emerging in the midst of the world.
The temple was a focal point of the Jewish people in Judea and beyond. The temple in Jerusalem takes up a large amount of the city’s overall footprint and as N.T. Wright can state helpfully,
Jerusalem was not, like Corinth for example, a large city with lots of little temples dotted here and there. It was not so much a city with a temple in it; more like a temple with a small city round it. (Wright 1992, 225)
Matthew is not explicit that with Jesus departing the temple that the presence of God has left the temple, but with Matthew’s Emmanuel theology which permeates the gospel it may be implied in this scene. The temple, for all the grandeur of its reconstruction, will soon for not only the Christians but also for the rest of the Jewish people, will be displaced as a central symbol of their faith with its destruction. The coming destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, which occurs in the Jewish War of 66-70 CE, will cause a crisis which forces both the Jewish people and the early followers of Jesus, both Jew and Gentile, to reexamine their faith in terms of a new central place where God will meet them. For the followers of Jesus, one greater than the temple is currently among them and for Matthew’s community they await his return.
One of the consistent struggles of the disciples throughout the gospel is attempting to understand Jesus’ message in light of the traditional symbols and paradigms the learned. They are still ‘little faith ones’ which see in part, trust in part but still are struggling to let go of the beliefs and practices they learned over a lifetime. They see the temple primarily as a structure dedicated to God’s service, and so the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem seem like the opposite of what to expect after the coming of the long-awaited Messiah. Just like Jeremiah’s message which often fell on deaf ears before the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem by Babylon, only to be remembered as the people reconstructed their identity in exile, these words of Jesus which at the time seemed strange, provided meaning, and hope in a future where the followers of Jesus are scattered among the nations. At a time when the Roman empire seems to be consumed by struggles for power, and when the early Christians themselves may be beginning to experience exclusion from their identity with the Jewish people and persecution among the nations these words encourage them to persevere.
Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of heaven has prepared his followers to expect God’s intervention in the world, and there are others in Judaism of the time who also expected God’s intervention in various ways. We know the Essenes and the Pharisees expected God to intervene in history to deliver Israel from its enslavement to foreign powers and (in the Essenes case) unfaithful shepherds leading in the temple. Jewish hope was not for an ending of the world, as is present in popular culture and several late Christian movements, but rather for a reordering of the world around God’s reign through Israel. When the disciples ask about Jesus’ coming (parousia) at the end of the eon (suntelias tou aionos) they are not asking about the end of the world but the advent of God’s kingdom which will replace the kingdoms of Herod or the empire of Caesar. The idea of Christ’s return is probably imagined in imagery similar to a celebration after one of King David’s victories. The other source of imagery would be the celebrations of imperial might by Caesar, but these would be considered only a parody of the expected victorious celebration of the advent of the kingdom of heaven on earth. Yet, Jesus does not answer the disciples with signs of his coming to inaugurate the kingdom of heaven but instead gives warnings about events, false prophets and false messiahs/Christs which will lead people to trust in the wrong things.
Jesus warns his disciples “See (blepete) that no one leads you astray.” While the NRSV’s use of beware does capture the sense of warning, the disciples are to take an active role in ensuring that they do not follow false prophets and false Christs. It is helpful to remember that Christ and Messiah are the same term, ultimately meaning anointed king, in Greek and Hebrew respectively rather than a part of Jesus’ name. Others will come claiming the same title that Peter has previously applied to Jesus, and they will gather followers. It is helpful to know that in the decades after Jesus’ death there would be those making the claim to be the ‘king of the Jews’ who would lead the people of Judea in multiple uprisings against Rome (not only the Jewish War of 66-70 which resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem, but also the 115-117 Jewish revolts in Egypt, Cyrene and Cyprus and the 133-135 rebellion of Bar-Kochba). This was a violent time for the Jewish people, and these followers of Jesus were not to follow these claimants who are attempting to establish God’s kingdom by force. Jesus’ followers are not to look for certain events which herald the advent of God’s kingdom on earth but to continue in their mission of teaching and proclamation to all nations. As Richard B. Hays can state, “The reality of the final judgment is crucial for Matthew, but not its timing.” (Hays 1996, 104) If these followers of Christ seek meaning in the midst of the struggle that is coming it can be read in the feminine imagery of ‘birth pangs’ that must occur before the advent of the new kingdom, or new creation in Paul’s language.
The suffering of these followers of Jesus in the midst of wars and rumors of wars, famines, and earthquakes in to be expected. As Jesus could tell them in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (5:10) now they are told they will face ‘oppression’ and some will be killed. Matthew, unlike Mark and Luke, indicates that this oppression will come from the nations instead of perhaps their own people which may be assumed in Mark and Luke and this may reflect the situation of Matthew’s community being away from Judea and experiencing persecution primarily from sources outside the Jewish people. Even among the community of Jesus followers some may be ‘caused to stumble,’ and others will ‘hand over,’ and hate will enter into these communities formed around loving God and one’s neighbor. In addition to false Christs there will be false prophets who tell people a message that did not come from God. The identity of the community is at stake here. Anna Case-Winters helpfully illustrates:
Lawlessness will afflict them and “the love of many will grow cold (v.12). This latter is perhaps the most serious threat for Matthew. Lawlessness (Greek anomia) is the ultimate crisis for a community centered around Torah. For love to “grow cold” signifies the loss of the very heart of Torah, which is love of God and neighbor. (Case-Winters 2015, 271)
The crisis of oppression, death, stumbling, betrayal, and hate threaten to extinguish the love that the community is grounded in. But those who endure to the completion will not be left on their own. This scene anticipates the great commission with its promise of both the authority and presence of Christ as well as the commission to take this gospel to all nations. As David Garland can helpfully state,
the church is not to circle the wagons until the danger passes but is to engage in active mission. In spite of the trauma, the community’s responsibility to love and proclaim the gospel of the kingdom remains in force. (Garland 2001, 242)
Matthew, who has been intent throughout the gospel in helping the reader understand scripture, adds the citation of Daniel to the comment about the ‘blasphemy’ standing in the holy place so the reader might find:
Forces sent by him shall occupy and profane the temple and fortress. They shall abolish the regular burnt offering and set up the abomination that makes desolate. Daniel 11:31
Daniel, which most scholars would say is pointing to Antiochus IV Epiphanes a Seleucid king who persecuted the Jewish people leading to the Maccabean revolt, is now read in light of the actions of the Romans conquering the temple and removing the holy items for their victory parade in Rome. Instead of being drawn into this conflict with the empire of Rome, those followers of Christ in Judea are to flee. The war, which will continue beyond 70 as the imperial forces continue to quell their rebellious Jewish province, will indeed bring great suffering for the people of Judea. Ironically, these warnings to flee throughout this chapter are misread drastically by some later Christians into talking about a ‘rapture’ where the hope is to be the one taken but to the original hearers they would understand this as a warning to prepare to flee on short notice. They may need to flee without packing, without re-entering the house or taking additional garments. Into this time of great affliction (thlipsis) those claiming authority as leaders, or those who claim the authority to interpret God’s will as prophets will come claiming to create meaning out of the suffering, but they are telling a false story. These false prophets and false Christs, who most likely portrayed themselves as being the saviors of Israel from her oppressors, were probably an attractive alternative to the message of Matthew’s community and the gospel they proclaimed. Yet, they are warned not to go out seeking these leaders and prophets.
To the early community of Jesus followers these warnings probably were intended to keep them away from the revolutionary movements gaining strength in Judea, Galilee and beyond. Matthew’s closing line that Wherever the corpse is, there the eagleswill gather may refer to the massing of Roman standards (eagles) gathered around Jerusalem. Although I believe Warren Carter rightly discerns the echo of Rome in this verse, I believe he misinterprets the direction of the verse. Carter indicates that the verse indicates a judgment on Rome and the corpse is the Roman army, (Carter 2001, 87-88) but I believe the plainer reading in the context is to avoid Judea and Jerusalem in revolt where the legions assemble to wage war against the revolt. The corpse may refer to the crucifixion, to the temple (especially in the context of this chapter) or to Jerusalem, but the geographical location would be understood.
In a passage like this one, especially where I have covered a lot of historical ground, it is perhaps more difficult to allow it to speak to the church today, yet I believe there is no way to separate Christianity from the apocalyptic portions of its scriptures. Every time one prays the Lord’s Prayer asking for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, one is praying for God’s intervention to bring about God’s promised new eon. Yet, throughout the gospel and throughout history there have been forces which are opposed to God’s reign and the changes that will bring. What may be perceived as a blessing to the poor in spirit, the meek, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness and the others mentioned in the beatitudes may be experienced as a woe to those who have become invested in the maintaining of the current order or who may want to bring about God’s order in their own terms. This chapter, even as it has been frequently misused in modern times, holds a key insight for the way of Christ: it is a way of hope even as one endures suffering. The Christians were not zealots who attempted to bring about God’s order by driving out the Gentiles from the promised land, rather they were those sent into the nations bearing witness to the gospel of peace. They meet violence by turning the other cheek, the learn to find blessing even when they are oppressed, and they find meaning amidst the times of affliction and tribulation by trusting in God’s hearing of their prayers and acting on them. This is a hope that would be at home in the psalms and the prophets and has sustained Christians for millennia. It is a hope that has sustained non-violent groups through the years and as I write this the lyrics of “We Shall Overcome,” used in the civil rights movement but has its origins in Charles Tindley’s adaptation of the 19th Century Spiritual “No More Auction Block for Me.” Oh deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome one day, and that overcoming comes when God changes the world bringing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. Until that day we work, and we wait, and we suffer, and we hope. We hold fast to what we have received and are alert for false prophets and false messiahs which proclaim cheap and easy paths to claiming God’s kingdom
 We again encounter the common Matthew word telos, here with the prefix sun attached to it, meaning completion, consummation, end. I think the older word eon is helpful, since it is both a direct transliteration of the Greek aion but also does not have some of the baggage of ‘the end of the age’ in Christian parlance.
 Paul can also use the imagery of labor pains of the creation giving birth to something new in Romans 8:18-25
 This is the Greek word thlipsis which occurs twice in this passage meaning ‘oppression, affliction, or tribulation’
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.
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.
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)