Monday, June 30, 2008

Revelation 10

Revelation 10:1-11: We would expect the seventh angel to blow the seventh trumpet and thereby bring on the third woe, but just as the sequence of the seals was broken, so here we have another angel appear with another scroll. John had been reporting from heaven, but here he is back on Patmos and an angel comes down from heaven with a small, open scroll in his hand. The qualities of this angelic figure are often associated with God – in Revelation God, Christ, and the messengers of God bear a striking resemblance. That a rainbow shines around this figure is an indication that even though the visions John shares are often dark, they are always meant to be heard with hope.

The angels voice shouts out loudly, and brings out the sound of seven thunders. John is going to write down the voice of the thunder, but he is told to seal it up. This may be an image meant to communicate that not all the mysteries of God are revealed by any one “prophet,” even one as powerful as John. Sometimes even prophets are to keep silent, to seal up the voices of thunder.

While John remains silent about the voices of thunder, he does report what he hears from this angel – that God’s purposes will move forward. There will be no more delay. Images from Daniel 12 reverberate in this section.

The chapter ends with a beautiful image of the prophetic vocation – eating the scroll of God. We are reminded of material from Ezekial 2 and 3 here. “The prophetic mission of internalizing and announcing the word of God is a bittersweet mixture of joy and sorrow” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible).

To share God’s love in an often hostile and unloving world is frequently bittersweet. As Christians we have words of love to share, acts of compassion and justice to engage in, but we often see just how far the world is from God’s dream for it. We are painfully aware of how often our own lives fall short. Such a view can create sadness and bitterness. Yet our job is to continue to proclaim God’s love in words and deeds that heal and free, to let sadness become tenderness.

Revelation 11

Revelation 11:1-14: This section is dense with allusions from the Old Testament and earlier apocalyptic traditions. It is not to be “decoded,” but does imaginatively place the experience of the church of John’s day in the context of extravagant biblical imagery. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

John has eaten the scroll and now will speak about nations and languages and kings, I hear and echo in the words about nations and languages to the image in chapter 7 of the multitude of those worshipping God. Here the multitude will be going in a different direction. In a time when the churches to which John is writing feel their distinct minority status, he uses minority images to write about faithfulness.

Nations will have a time of triumph over the church. They will thwart God’s justice and peace and redemption, but only for a time. Two images speak of the limits of the powers that work against God’s purposes – the image of a part of the Temple that stands strong (an ironic image given that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE), and the image of forty-two months or 1,260 days.

Even in an evil time, there will be witnesses to God’s purposes – here portrayed as two persons dressed in sackcloth or two olive trees or two lampstands. Such fluidity in imagery makes it difficult to argue for the kind of interpretation of Revelation that is often popular – every image has a very specific future reference point. Revelation is simply not that kind of book. The witnesses are powerful, powerful in the words they speak, but even these powerful witnesses will seemingly be defeated, at least for a time. A beast who comes from the bottomless pit will arise and defeat the witnesses, much to the approval of a world gone badly wrong. But God’s purposes will not be defeated, and God breathes the breath of life back into the two witnesses. The promise here is that not even death will ultimately defeat the purposes of God. For some of the people to whom John writes, the choice might have come to faithfulness or death. John’s writing here is both a statement of personal hope and cosmic hope – God’s love will triumph. God’s love will be vindicated.

Revelation 11:15-19: The seventh trumpet sounds, and it is supposed to bring with it the third woe, but it does so only indirectly. The image here is once again of worship, and it is worship as a celebration of the final triumph of God’s dream for the world, the final triumph of truth, beauty, goodness, justice, reconciliation and love. It is not that the world gone wrong has disappeared, it has been transformed into the reign of God. Those forces in the world which contribute to the earth’s destruction (an interesting turn of phrase in our ecologically-minded time), which lead nations astray (depending on the power of violence and injustice to maintain peace and sovereignty), are judged to be wholly inadequate to life. The word of woe here is that lives will be judged and you are asked to give an account. Did you remain faithful to the Jesus way in spite of difficulties encountered or did you give in to another way, perhaps the imperial way? To live other than the Jesus way is to waste a life. To live the Jesus way is to contribute to God’s dream for the world, a dream that won’t be defeated.

The ark of the covenant was a powerful Old Testament image for the presence of God. The weather at the end of the chapter is also symbolic of the presence of God.

While John writes in extravagant poetic language, he is a realistic observer of human life in the world. He sees evil and sees the depths of evil. The world is not as it should be. Every hungry child cries out for bread and for God’s dream for the world. Every injustice is a reminder that the world is still the world and often thwarts God’s dream for the world. When there is hatred instead of love, God’s dream is set aside. When there is retribution instead of reconciliation or forgiveness, God’s dream for the world is crucified. That’s the world we live in. But the world we live in is also a world into which the life breath of God is breathed anew time and time again. Sometimes it seems as if all we are left with is two strong witnesses, but more often we get a glimpse of that wonderfully inclusive party and parade imagined in chapter 7. John’s writing poses these questions again and again – Which side are you on? Will you hold fast to the faith, even when the forces of evil, injustice and oppression seem so strong? The questions are alive for us today.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Revelation 8

Revelation 8:1-5: The breaking of the seals by the Lamb continues. The seventh seal is broken, but instead of the scroll unrolling to reveal its contents, silence ensues. Seven angels are given seven trumpets – “as in a Chinese-box puzzle, another seven… is revealed” (Brown, Introduction to the New Testament, 788). The silence contrasts with the trumpet blasts that follow.

The long silence suggests the return of the earth to the primeval silence that preceded creation just before the eschatological climax. In Zechariah… silence in the prelude to the divine epiphany. Silence is also a ritual preface to prayer, along with the burning of incense, the prayers of the saints, and the sounding of trumpets, which characterize the setting as a worship scene. (New Interpreters Study Bible)

John may be trying to connect the worship life of the church with a worship that goes on in the heavens. In verses 4 and 5, we get a picture of prayer – it is offered to God (incense is the image used) and it ends up having an effect on earth. The signs in verse 5 are often metaphoric signs of the presence of God – thunder, lightening, earthquakes. John wants to connect the worshipping community with God’s purposes (earthly and heavenly worship) and assure the readers that prayer given to God comes back to earth, brings God’s presence closer to their lives. This is not to say that God is not present in the absence of prayer, but perhaps to say that prayer makes a difference. One of my favorite theological expressions of this thought is offered by Marjorie Suchocki. God works with the world as it is to bring it toward what it can be. Prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes what the world can be. Prayer makes a difference to what God can do in and with the world. (In God’s Presence, 31)

Revelation 8:6-13: The trumpets given to the seven angels are blown in succession, and with each trumpet blast, something takes place – a similar scenario to the breaking of the seals. The background for the series of event that plague the earth with the trumpet blasts is the Exodus story – where plagues preceded that liberation of God’s people from slavery. Here the plague-like events are understood as a prelude to God’s final act of liberation. “These are eschatological symbols, and precise identifications with catastrophes that occur in our time are useless” (Brown, 788). The images not only reflect biblical traditions, but Greek and Roman traditions as well – blood raining down from the heavens can be found in Hellenistic literature. There may also be references to past events such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on the west coast of Italy in August of 79. That the author frequently refers to one-third of this or that indicates that there will be more to the story. Many of these images would resonate with scenes from contemporary science fiction, especially dystopian scenarios based on a major ecological catastrophe or global thermonuclear war. There is quite an artistic vision at work here. The chapter ends with an awful assurance – more woe is to come.

While there are three trumpets remaining, one might pause here to wonder what value such a passage of Scripture might have for our lives. Those that think of Revelation as an accurate prediction of future events spend time trying to figure out which modern events might correspond to these artistic images. What if we don’t read in this way? One thing we can do is admire the artistic creativity of the author. God’s Spirit often inspires wonderful creativity. That would be a rather obscure point to be made here, however. Some might argue that what this passage does is proclaim that God has reasons for all the catastrophic events that happen in our world, that God is a causal factor and that we cannot be sure what good God is trying to accomplish by causing or allowing such horrendous events. I think that may be taking this poetic, artistic work too far. I would argue that the primary point here is not that God has a purpose in every event that happens in the world, but that God is present with us in the midst of all that happens and nothing that happens can finally thwart God’s purpose for the world. We might have a wonderful theological argument about whether or not God causes or allows all that happens in the world, or whether some things happen of their own freedom. Regardless of our theological view on that issue, the fundamental point in Revelation is that God is with us and that God’s purposes cannot be defeated even by the worst events imaginable. In fact, the horrible can sometimes be a prelude to the wonderful.

Revelation 9

Revelation 9:1-12: This vision does not literally correspond to any event in John’s past, present, or future. With a montage of images from mythology and tradition, he bombards the hearer-readers’ imaginations with yet another evocative image of eschatological calamity. (People’s New Testament Commentary). The final trumpets are ready to blow and John will take us on a wild ride in these verses.

Here is a comment on some of the imagery at the beginning of the chapter: The stars were personified as deities in ancient paganism and were sometimes identified with angels in the Old Testament and in Jewish tradition…. The cosmos is thought of as having three layers, heaven/earth/under the earth. The earth is protected as long as the shaft to the abyss is kept shut. Only God has the key. But here God allows the demonic powers to torment the world in the last time before the end. (People's New Testament Commentary)

Smoke rises from the bottomless pit, darkens the sky and the smoke becomes locust. One of the plagues in Exodus involved locust, and in the agricultural economies of the near-East, locusts were capable of destroying needed crops. Fear of locust was a real fear, but here it is transformed – these locusts are not interested in the crops, but in stinging human beings, like the sting of scorpions. The pain is real, leading people to wish life would be shortened. But the terror of the locusts will not last long, and those who have been marked by God were not harmed – again evoking the stories from Exodus. John’s point is not that the faithful will not suffer, but that they will stand through it all.

The picture John paints of his vision is dramatic – the locusts are like soldiers. In addition to fear of real locusts, many in the empire feared foreign invasions, and the imagery here may evoke invasions of Rome by Parthians from the East. In reality, locusts have no leader, but in this vision they are led by a king – a king whose name is “Abaddon” in Hebrew or “Apollyon” in Greek. Both words are rooted in words for “destruction.” In addition, however, the terms suggest something to do with the Empire. The term “king” used here is the term used of the Roman emperors. “Apollyon” may be a pun on the name of the god Apollo. Both emperors Domitian and Nero referred to themselves as having a special relationship with Apollo. Even when the empire is evil, it cannot thwart God’s purposes.

Revelation 9:13-21: The sixth trumpet is blown, and a second woe ensues. Again, evoking fear of foreign invasion, John pictures this woe as the invasion of an enormous army from the East, from beyond the Euphrates. The populace of the Roman Empire had an almost paranoid fear of the “barbarian hordes” from Parthia, across the Euphrates River on the eastern border of the empire, whom Rome never conquered. Here this primal fear is magnified to eschatological proportions and becomes a part of the final plagues preceding the end. (New Interpreters Study Bible).

A third of humankind is killed by this invasion. I don’t know if you are keeping track of the math, but this isn’t the first time this phrase has been used. Again, this tells us that John is not concerned with prediction of events in some distant future, but with a poetic, metaphoric vision that is intended to invite people to faith and faithfulness even if the entire world is going to hell in a handbasket.

John’s concern is with faith and faithfulness. It is with staying true to the deepest values of Christian faith, values he understands to be in significant contrast with the prevailing values of the Roman empire. The final verses of this chapter offer a view of those imperial values against which Christians struggled. “Repent” meant from the Roman side the turning away from commitment to Christ as Lord in order to conform to the imperial cult. Just as faithful Christians refused to “repent” in the Roman sense, the Roman world refuses to repent in the Christian sense by turning away from the false values of their culture to worship the Creator. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

The language here is somewhat disturbing, suggesting that God is willing to bring immense suffering on people in order to teach them a lesson. John may have that in mind, in some sense, but I don’t think that’s the heart of his message. The heart of John’s message is faith and faithfulness, staying true to the values of God’s way in the world, the Jesus way in the world, even when the world is falling apart. If there were a soundtrack here, it might be the song done by The Police a few years ago – “when the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around” – except that with John, God’s best is always a possibility. Unfortunately, history is strewn with “demonic” forces, forces disturbingly harmful to human persons and communities – natural disasters, war, injustice, oppression, violence. It is also strewn with examples of values systems that say if we can only be rich enough, powerful enough, create enough fear in others, we can avoid the vicissitudes of life. Such value systems are a temptation. John is urging resistance to skewed values and faithfulness to faith values, no matter what may be happening in the world. With our world entering a period of great change, and the great unknown – what will happen with oil-based economies? Where will the United States be in relation to Russia, China, India in fifty years? How will nations and peoples in the Southern Hemisphere be doing in the near future? - we might be wise to use the opportunity given us by John’s wild words to think about what it means to be faithful in our changing world.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Revelation 6

Revelation 6:1-17: The wild ride begins. The sealed scroll is opened.

When the Lamb opens each of the seals, horrifying events occur on earth. Those who interpret Revelation as predicting the long-range future have attempted to identify these with historical catastrophes, either those already past (various wars, earthquakes, and plagues) or those that are about to happen in the interpreter’s own time. However, John is not predicting particular events that will occur generations or centuries later, but presenting images of the troubles the world will experience just before the return of Christ, which he sees as coming soon. He thus places the troubles and persecution already being experienced by the church of his day in a meaningful context within the framework of God’s plan for history. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

As the Lamb breaks each seal, terrible catastrophes occur on the earth, representing the judgment of God that precedes the final establishment of God’s just rule. These images rightly constitute a main problem for many reader, who ask how (or whether) God can be so portrayed. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible) This writer elaborates on how we might understand the violent imagery in Revelation.
John’s thought began not with visions about future suffering but with the fact of suffering in his own time. Apocalyptic thought gives suffering a meaning by placing it in a transcendent context, functioning as interpretation of the present and not as speculation about what is to come in the future…. Even then, cries for revenge are not personal, but a plea fro the justice of God to be made manifest publicly.
John did not devise this violent language and imagery himself. In both form and content, most of it was adopted and adapted by him from his Bible and from his Jewish and Christian traditions.
The violence in chapters 6-16 is not literal violence against the real world. Rather it is violence perceived through visionary foresight about the future, expressed in metaphorical language…. As when watching a violent movie that “turns out right in the end,” the violent scenes are not dwelled on as something significant apart from the context.• The violent imagery repeatedly expresses John’s conviction of universal human sinfulness.
The violent imagery is presented within a Revelation that also has scenes of universal salvation.
Revelation does not advocate a theology of revenge or resentment but one of justice.

Reading Revelation is a complex matter. Certainly the violent imagery here has been put to unfortunate use. It has functioned to foster resentment and revenge. We must take great care in reading, but as with all the Scriptures we should not simply neglect what we find difficult. We should read with intelligence, and with a heart open to how God’s Spirit might speak to us in surprising ways and places as we read.

The strong word “Come” echoes the cry of Christians for Christ’s coming to establish God’s dream for the world. Some of the imagery associated with the first four seals is found in Zechariah. The rider of the white horse is am imperial figure coming to conquer. The rider of the red horse brings war. When the black rider comes, injustice is rampant. The rider of the pale green horse brings with him famine, war, pestilence, plague. That these four horsemen continue to ride so freely in our day and time says something about human beings and human social arrangements. If such events are a prelude to the coming of God’s dream for the world in Christ, that coming is always just around the corner. Part of John’s message is that God’s persistent presence and working for good remain even in the face of such tragedy. Our task is to choose to be a part of God’s work for justice and a transformed world – even when the four apocalyptic horses and riders run rampant.

When the fifth seal is opened, a different kind of vision appears – a vision of persons who had lost their lives for their faith. While the number of Christians who had done so at this time may not have been great, there were nevertheless stories of martyrdom, and stories of Jews who had lost their lives for their faith. We admire persons who stand up for their principles of faith even when the odds are strongly against them, even when death looms – Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Archbishop Oscar Romero. “Their cries are not for personal vengeance, but for divine justice” (New Interpreters Study Bible). The language about numbers “portrays a set number of martyrs that must die before the end will come. It is not to be taken literally, but is a way of saying the present sufferings fit into God’s plan, that things are not out of control” (New Interpreters Study Bible).

The tale of woe moves from earthly disaster – war, famine, pestilence, hunger, injustice, and then persecution of the faithful – to cosmic disintegration – stars falling, the moon changing colors, mountains and islands and skies vanish. Not even the rich and powerful are immune from this cosmic house cleaning. God wants to start a new creation and is clearing the old one out. The image of God is rather frightening here, but it is tempered both by what happened when the fifth seal was open (God hears the cries of God’s people), and by the next chapter, in which multitudes of people from every nation, tribe, peoples and languages are a part of God’s saving work.

The force of John’s words are intended to encourage people to keep the faith even if it seems as if the sky itself were falling. By the way, the earthquake image has both a literary and historical root. In Judeo-Christian tradition, earthquakes were often seen as “acts of God” for some purpose. Asia Minor was also prone to earthquakes. In 17 CE twelve cities had been leveled by an earthquake.

Revelation 7

Revelation 7:1-8: Chapter 6 ends with a question – who is able to stand in the midst of such catastrophe? Well, with God, many are so able, and this chapter testifies to that.

Only one more seal to go, but there is a dramatic pause. In this pause, God seeks to mark, to seal God’s people. The earth here is depicted as flat, and the writer has a vision of devastating winds that can wreck havoc on that earth. God asks for a time out so that God’s people can be identified. The image of being sealed has two connotations. “Sealing” was language the early church used in relation to baptism. Slaves were also sometimes marked or sealed with a brand or tattoo so their owner could be identified.

The number 144,000 is significant in several ways. It was a large number for the time, and would have helped the listeners think of themselves as part of a large movement. The number symbolized completeness or wholeness. Its symbolism echoes with the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. However, “it is not clear why the vision makes a distinction between the symbolic number of 144,000… and the innumerable multitude from every nation, tribe, people and tongue whose white garments have been washed in the blood of the Lamb” (Raymond Brown, Introduction to the New Testament, 789).

Revelation 7:9-17: Here we have the second part of the vision already alluded to. Here the number of those who are part of God’s people is “a great multitude” – and it is a multi-cultural celebration! “Everyone was there – all nations and tribes, all races and language” (The Message) That the church has justified segregation, and limited the participation of groups of people runs directly counter to the openness of such a vision. The song of God is a song to be sung in many tongues, with many languages and dialects. The singers will reflect the beautiful rainbow of God’s people. All kinds of people will come through the difficult time John envisions and will celebrate together in a festival of song, a feast. Some of the worship language would have been familiar as language which was used to extol the empire. Salvation belongs to God, and not to the empire. The inclusive vision here as distinct from the imperial vision of a more rigid social hierarchy. The vision here is of people being sheltered by God. It is a vision where the hungry are fed, the thirsty find drink, shade is given to those in need, springs of living water gush forth, the Lamb is a caring shepherd and the mysterious God seated on the throne wipes tears from eyes. This is God’s dream for the world, and we are invited to work for it even in the midst of the difficult circumstance of this life. To do so is to live life marked by Jesus, to have the living garments of our lives soaked in his life (“above all, clothe yourselves with love” – Colossians 3:14).

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Revelation 3

Revelation 3:1-6: Sardis was a city of 75,000 forty miles southeast of Thyatira, and is not mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. Again, the angel of the church is addressed by Jesus the Christ, who appears in yet another new visionary phrase. The experience of Jesus as the Christ is one which finds a variety of expression, again testifying to a certain elasticity in Christian expression.

The church has a reputation for being lively, but the writer says that it is dying. What are the marks of a lively church and what are the signs of dying. Numbers alone probably never tell the story, yet a certain vibrant attractiveness is probably a sign of life if one reads other parts of the New Testament. The most important sign of life would seem to be the presence of the risen Christ in the midst of the people and their responsiveness to this. While measuring matters in church life, the liveliness of a congregation is difficult to assess according to that standard. The church is invited to turn again, to recapture what it may have lost along the way. Church renewal often entails recapturing elements from the past. In Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: Revival of church life always brings in its train a richer understanding of the Scriptures. Behind all the slogans and catchwords of ecclesiastical controversy, necessary though they are, there arises a more determined quest for him who is the sole object of it all, for Jesus Christ himself. What did Jesus mean to say to us? What is his will for us today? How can he help us to be good Christians in the modern world? In the last resort, what we want to know is not, what would this or that person, or this or that Church, have of us, but what Jesus Christ himself wants of us. (p. 37) The simple term “wake up” is used for encouragement. Failure to wake up means a loss of the life God intends, missing out on God’s purposes.

Revelation 3:7-13: Here is another community about which nothing else is written in the New Testament. It was located 28 miles southeast of Sardis. The city was grateful to the empire for its help in rebuilding after an earthquake in 17 CE. It added “New Caesarea” and “Flavia” to its name in praise of imperial rule. To this community tied to the empire, the writer addresses a letter from “the holy one.” Roman emperors also used this to describe themselves. The author is speaking on behalf of another kingdom, with metaphoric roots in the Davidic kingdom.

The people of this Jesus Community are praised for their patient endurance, and promises of open doors and protection are made to them. They are promised identification with the very name of God if they continue in the way they are going.

Revelation 3:14-22: Laodicea was a large and wealthy city on a major road forty miles southeast of Philadelphia, one hundred miles east of Ephesus, and near Colossae. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 60 CE, but it was able to rebuild itself without the help of the Roman empire. As in all these “letters,” Jesus as the Christ is described in yet another set of images.

The phrase “neither hot nor cold” does not have anything to do with emotionality, as those terms do for us. They have the meaning of “for or against” – if one is hot one is for something and if one is cold one is against something or someone. John judged this congregation to be insufficiently “for” Jesus as the Christ, though we are not sure why. The simple for/against categories are typical for apocalyptic literature, as would be an image of being turned away (spit out).

The categories of wealth and poverty are used as they were in the letter to Smyrna, but here wealth may be literal and poverty metaphorical/symbolic – at least in verse 17. In verse 18, riches are also used symbolically/metaphorically. The congregation is invited to turn, to repent, to seek true riches – the riches of life in Christ.

I am particularly struck by the context for the famous image in verse 20. So often this has been used to picture Jesus knocking at the door of a human heart, but while that may not be an inappropriate use of that image, it is not its primary meaning in this context. These words are written to a congregation – Jesus stands at the door of the church knocking. They are also written to a Christian community, not to those outside that community. This is an excellent reminder that the church is invited to continue to let the Christ form its life, enter more deeply into the community.

This particular letter provides caution against the spiritual dangers of material well-being. Wealth is not evil in itself, and poverty and deprivation are no blessings by themselves. Material prosperity is not wrong as such, but wealth and prosperity have a tendency to promote spiritual complacency. John Wesley was concerned about that for his Methodist movement as he encouraged thrift and industry, and he is not alone in the Christian tradition. When we are doing fine it is easy to believe God is blessing us just as we are, and easier to ignore the persistent knocking of the Christ who may be calling us in a new direction.

Revelation 4

Revelation 4:1-11: “At 4:1, the scene changes from earth to heaven, and John receives a series of visions depicting God’s establishment of justice in the world by judging the world-city” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). The model of the universe presupposed here is of a three-tiered universe – earth is in the middle (flat), above it is heaven and below it the underworld. A door is opened for John so he can ascend into heaven and there receive his vision from God.

In heaven, caught up in the spirit (in a prophetic/visionary trance) John sees a throne room. Heaven is often compared to an earthly monarchical throne room. It is one way to contrast the reign of God with earthly imperial power, but we need to be careful with these overlapping images. Might it be the case that sometimes the writer ascribes to God certain elements of earthly power, might and rule that would be better left to imperial power? We will want to ask this from time to time. The early theologian, Origen (c. 184- c. 254) once wrote: Moreover, even the simpler of those who claim to belong to the Church, while believing indeed that there is none greater than the Creator, in which they are right, yet believe such things about him as would not be believed of the most savage and unjust of men. (On First Principles, Book IV, Chapter 1)

It is clear, however, that the writer is caught up in a vision that proclaims something of the wonder, beauty and greatness of God. It is also a vision that assures the readers that the empire is not finally in control of the world, that there is One whose purposes will not finally be thwarted, even by a powerful earthly empire. I appreciate what Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury writes about the notion of “God almighty.” The word translated “almighty” in fact in the Greek means “ruler of everything” or even something like “holder of everything;” and this suggests a slightly different approach. It means that there is nowhere God is absent, powerless or irrelevant…. God always has the capacity to do something fresh and different, to bring something new out of a situation. (Tokens of Trust, 16). The vision in Revelation 4 is the author’s way of proclaiming “God almighty.”

Taking a cue from Ezekial 1, the presence of God on the throne is described using precious gems rather than human features. Surrounding the Divine Presence is a rainbow, a sign of hope. The number twenty-four is used nowhere else in apocalyptic literature, but in the context probably evokes the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles in order to suggest the entire people of God. Thunder and lightening evoke past images of God’s presence, such as on Mount Sinai. The “seven spirits of God” is a way to suggest the fullness of God’s Spirit. The crystal sea in front of the throne suggests God’s ordering presence in the midst of creation. The sea was often associated with chaos and opposed to creativity in ancient Near Eastern myth. Here even the seas are calm before God, reminding readers who may have known it of the story about Jesus calming the sea. The wonder and mystery of creation are also evoked in the four living creatures flying around the throne. They seem to represent all of life, though the picture painted in the words is rather absurd and grotesque – eyes everywhere. Sight is often a metaphor for spiritual illumination and the author may be suggesting that God’s presence is the source of such illumination – in the Divine Presence our lives are fully open, and we can see fully, too.

The scene becomes one of worship – all these figures and creatures sing praises to God, the one seated on the throne. God is holy, almighty, worthy, the Creator. In our democratic age, many of us struggle with such images. They evoke groveling before a powerful figure, like the scene in the Wizard of Oz before Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Lion and the Tin Man discover the man behind the curtain. The vision here is too monarchical, and our experiences of monarchy is that they maintain their might and power by denigrating and denying the might and power of others.

The image can speak to us, I think, if we understand that the writer is doing his best to picture the deeper reality of worship. Worship comes from a combination of words – “worth” and “ship”. To worship is to focus on what is of value, what is of worth (“worthy”). In Christian worship we acknowledge that our lives are part of a larger reality and Christians say that knowing that helps us make the most of life. Worship in its broadest sense is contributing to the life of God. If we believe our good genuinely contributes to God’ life, then all that we do for justice, peace, human development, joy, beauty is a form of worship. The early Christian theologian, Irenaeus wrote that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” As a Christian I would argue that we need to more focused times of worship, gathering together in community to sing, pray and hear the word proclaimed in order to have the strength and courage to lead lives that are also worship. With these thoughts in mind, perhaps the vision of this chapter can resonate more deeply with our lives. To help it do so, let me conclude with some words of others, words which evoke the deeper reality of worship.

Peace and praise. This and this alone is God’s “agenda”: the world he has made is designed to become a reconciled world, a world in which diverse human communities come to share a life together because they share the conviction that God has acted to set them free from fear and guilt. And this in turn is only one facet of a reconciliation that somehow affects the whole cosmos, that draws the diversity of the created world itself together so that it works harmoniously. This reconciliation liberates human voices for praise, for celebrating the glory of God who has made it possible and has held steadily to his purpose from the beginning. This is what God is after, and there is no hidden agenda, nothing is kept back. (Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, 8-9)

Primary Wonder (Denise Levertov, The Stream and the Sapphire)

Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.
And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.

Revelation 5

Revelation 5:1-14: The One seated on the throne holds a scroll in his hand. The scroll had a number of connotations in the culture of the time: a scroll of the Law, a scroll of the Prophets, the prophetic scroll given to Ezekial (2:10), a scroll with edicts about the future, the book of life on which the names of the redeemed are recorded, a scroll with a record of human deeds, a last will and testament. Because this is a poetic image, one need not choose between these various alternatives. I get a sense of the image of the scroll as something like the key to history and to the mystery of life. The initial problem with this scroll with seven seals is that no one can open the seals, no one is worthy. Why the One seated on the throne cannot do so is not explained – such is the nature of a poetic work. The author is distressed – will his vision now end because of the sealed scroll? Will he be left in the dark as to the meaning of history, the meaning to the mystery of life? But there is one worthy to open the seals and reveal the contents of the scroll.

The writer is told that the Lion of Judah, the root of David who has conquered will be able to open the seals and unroll the scroll. The traditional messianic hope was for a powerful figure sent by God to destroy evil and establish justice for the oppressed. The hoped-for Messiah, who would execute God’s purposes, was sometimes depicted as a powerful lion-like conqueror descended from King David and would reestablish David’s powerful kingdom. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). Excitement builds, but there is a tremendously surprising development – instead of a lion, a lamb – a lamb that had all the marks of being slaughtered. In one of the most mind-wrenching reversals of imagery in all literature, John sees that the lion has been replaced by a lamb. The one who has conquered did so not through violence, but by sacrificing his own life. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). In other words, “he accomplished God’s redemptive purpose not by killing others, but by being killed by them” (People’s New Testament Commentary). The Roman empire, claiming to be the kingdom of God, sought to establish peace through strength, war and on-going intimidation. The kingdom of God established by Jesus would seek a different way. There may be times when John loses that thought, when the conquering Jesus gets portrayed as leader of a conquering army. Such imagery, while serving the purpose of contrasting God’s dream for the world with the Roman empire may borrow too much from imperial imagery. We will confront that issue as we move through the book. Here it is clear that the one who conquers appears as a slain lamb. The lamb image is enhanced by adding horns and eyes representing the powerful presence of God’s own Spirit in this person.

The lamb takes the scroll from the one seated on the throne and a new song breaks out. It is as if the author is telling us that in the figure of the lamb, history’s meaning will be clarified, and its mystery given greater clarity. The lamb is the central figure in God’s relation with earth and humanity. The song contains imagery that some find difficult, imagery about the slaughter of the lamb making possible a reconciliation between God and people from every “tribe and language and people and nation.” This universal vision is striking in a day and time when tribe and language were often used to separate people. The vision of God’s work in the world is a vision of barriers being broken down. It is also a vision of human beings being raised up – of people becoming a kingdom and priests before God. This is an important image in a very hierarchical society. How the death of Jesus contributes to this, precisely, has been the subject of great theological debate for centuries. C.S. Lewis writes some wise words on this matter. The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start…. Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity. (Mere Christianity) I would want to add that we cannot separate the death of Jesus from the life of Jesus. Somehow the very life of Jesus, a life which ended in a shocking death, was given so that we would know life, so a fresh start would be possible for us.

While some of the images may not be ones we would choose for our own understanding of the importance of Jesus as the lamb of God, there is no question that song breaks out, songs reminiscent of the songs sung to the One seated on the throne. For the author of Revelation, Jesus as the Christ is the one in whom we know what God is like. “God and the Lamb are being put on virtually the same plane, with one being hailed as the creator and the other as the redeemer” (Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 787). Rowan Williams also writes about how, for Christians, Jesus is our key to understanding God. The life of Jesus of Nazareth, 2000 years ago, was sees by those who were closest to him as the key to God’s nature and intentions; it is because of Jesus that we grasp the idea of a God who is entirely out to promote our life and lasting joy…. Here is a human life so shot through with the purposes of God, so transparent to the action of God, that people speak of it as God’s life “translated” into another medium. Here God is supremely and uniquely at work…. Awkwardly and slowly and with much complication and even apparent contradiction, the New Testament moves towards the extraordinary notion that the Creator of the universe is at work without interruption in the life and work of Jesus – that is God who is doing what Jesus is doing (Tokens of Trust, 57, 62-3). In his own poetic way, that is what John is saying in Revelation 5. Whatever else unfolds, Jesus as the Christ is the center of God’s purpose in the world and that center will hold though all else around seems to melt into air. It is a message as relevant today as it was in John’s time, though we may need to discuss it differently and consider how our Christian faith, centered in Christ, relates us to other religious faith traditions. The Christian claim for the utter importance of Christ and for his centrality to Christian faith is not the same as a claim that God never works beyond those who name the name of Jesus. I believe there are Christian reasons for arguing that God is at work in other places and in other ways. I concur with theologian Douglas John Hall: I can say without any doubt at all that I am far more open to Jews and Muslims and Sikhs and humanist and all other kinds of human beings, including self-declared atheists, because of Jesus than I should ever have been apart from Jesus (Why Christian?, 34)

We will have an opportunity to visit this theme again. For John, what he writes here is for the encouragement of Christian communities in a difficult time. He encourages them to hold on, and the words of encouragement echo through the centuries to us.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Revelation 2

The seven churches were real congregations of real people with real problems in real cities at the end of the first century…. Although the individual letters reflect the particular situation of the church in each city, all the messages are addressed to all the churches. Each congregation is to hear not only the message addressed to it, but “what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”… The messages do not have the form of the Hellenistic letter – Revelation as a whole has that – but they do resemble the imperial edicts of Hellenistic kings and the Roman emperors, thus placing what the risen Christ as “king of kings” says to the churches over against the emperor who falsely claims this role of world rulership…. The letters are addressed to churches in sizable cities. By the end of the first century, Christianity was an urban phenomenon. The Christians in John’s churches were not simple peasant people on the back country, but residents in the principal cities of their time, struggling with the issues of how the Christian witness could be made real and viable within the political and cultural life of a sophisticated urban population. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

[The letters to the seven churches] are very important for understanding the whole book. They give us more information about a group of churches in Western Asia than most other NT books do about their addressees. When we come to the great visions of chaps. 4ff, we need to keep reminding ourselves that these are reported in order to convey a message to the Christians of those cities. Part of the misuse of Revelation is based on the misunderstanding that the message is primarily addressed to Christians of our time if they can decode the author’s symbols. Rather the meaning of the symbolism must be judged from the viewpoint of the 1st century addressees – a meaning that needs adaptation if we are to see the book as significant for the present era. (Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 782)

It is important to remember again and again that this is a first-century document, as both these commentators emphasize. These letters “do not symbolize ‘seven ages of church history.’ John did not foresee a long period of church history after his own time, but expected the end to come soon.” (People’s New Testament Commentary) This viewpoint is in contrast to that put forward in the previously mentioned Scofield Reference Bible. That commentator, while not arguing that these letters are unrelated to the specific churches also argues that in the “seven letter” we are presented with “seven phases of the spiritual history of the church from say, A.D. 96 to the end…. Most conclusively of all, these messages do present an exact foreview of the spiritual history of the church, and in this precise order.”

What we have in the next two chapters, then, are letters, but letters more as a literary construct, for the entire book of Revelation is written as a letter of sorts. Real churches are addressed, and no doubt the verses about those churches reflect some of the issues they were experiencing first-hand. But the author is also seeing the problems as more universal. What one church may be experiencing as a problem now may soon become a problem for another church. Hence, all the churches are to read all these “letters,” but the concerns are primarily first-century concerns. Only when we acknowledge that may we ask how the concerns may find expression in our day and time.

Revelation 2:1-7: While the “letters” are addressed to churches, they are addressed to the angels of each church. Remember the context is a visionary one – John is in the Spirit. Ephesus was the capital of Asia and the fourth largest city in the Roman Empire after Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch. In addition to being the political capital of Asia, it was also the economic and cultural capital of the province. The city was full of temples, including six to Roman emperors. “A generation before John’s time, the city had been a center of Pauline mission, and it was still a flourishing center of Pauline Christianity as well as for Christians of other traditions” (People’s New Testament Commentary) John is to relay a message that comes from Jesus the Christ – here described using part of the vision he has already related. This church is commended for a number of reasons – for their works and patient endurance. They have not grown weary – a temptation in any time. Even so, they are faulted because they “have abandoned the love you had at first.” This is an interesting phrase. Does it mean something like Eugene Peterson’s rendering in The Message – “you walked away from your first love”? Or is there another reading possible? They rejected false apostles and the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, but were unloving. It is possible to be orthodox and still miss the “more excellent way.” (People’s New Testament Commentary) I must admit I have always read it Peterson’s way, thinking that the Ephesian church was being criticized for falling away from God, Christ, faith as a first love, but the alternative needs to be given strong consideration. Think more about the context – they are commended for their endurance, hardly a falling away from a first love – but one can be tenacious in faith and at the same time unloving in that faith. They are encouraged to repent and “do the works you did at first” – the works of love?

They have rejected a group called the Nicolaitans, about whom we know little, except that the primary issue was probably the degree to which they sought accommodation with pagan culture. In the name of “progress” they advocated accommodation to pagan culture, represented by participation in festivals and social occasions that included eating meat ritually sacrificed to idols. John considered such actions an unacceptable compromise with paganism. (People’s New Testament Commentary) While this issue seems far removed from our contemporary experience (when was the last time you asked your butcher if the meat you were buying had been a part of a pagan ritual?), there are parallel issues. “The underlying issue of Christians conforming in an unprincipled way to the surrounding society remains a very current problem.” (Brown, Introduction to the New Testament)Have you ever heard some Christians speak as if the interests of a country and of Christian faith were exactly the same? Could that be a problem?

The note to the Ephesian church ends with a word to pay attention to what the Spirit is saying to all the churches and with a promise – a promise not specifically tied to the admonition in the note itself. The Ephesian Christians were asked to turn again (repent) and do the works of love they first did, or to rediscover something about their first love. The promise made at the end has to do with patient endurance, which the Ephesians are commended for. Still, the promise is powerful, evoking ancient stories (the Genesis) and perhaps offering a counter-cultural observation. In Ephesus the great temple to the god Artemis was built on a primitive tree shrine. While expressing concern for too great an accommodation with the surrounding culture, John uses its artifacts to tell his gospel story.

Revelation 2:8-11: Smyrna was a large seaport forty miles north of Ephesus, and it was a center of emperor worship. Again, the message is to be given to the angel of the church and comes from the Christ who is first and last, who died and came to life – echoes from the earlier vision.

Poverty and wealth can be used literally or metaphorically in the Bible, and in verse 9, they are used differently. The poverty and affliction are literal. Christians here probably suffered economically for trying to live out their faith. Commerce and empire were often intertwined, as were empire and worship of imperial gods. Christians may have been wary of the rules of commerce and suffered economically because of that. Nevertheless, the Christians in this Jesus community have borne up well under affliction and for that they are rich – used metaphorically, meaning spiritually wealthy. The harsh words for other Jews are startling. Remember a few things here. The writer is himself probably Jewish, and he uses “Jews” in a positive sense. He is not critical of all Jews, only certain ones who he believes have betrayed their faith. The statement is an indication of the intense religious conflict within the Jewish community of the time. Christians, many of whom were Jews, had, in many places been banished from synagogues. “Such epithets were frequently used in inter-Jewish religious conflicts” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). In addition, “such language represents the dualistic framework inherent in apocalyptic thought” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). Like a classic Western movie where the good guys and the bad guys are always easily distinguished, the form of literature John is using clearly distinguishes the godly from those who are not. Another analogy might be the pep talk a coach gives his team, wanting to spur them on to victory. In that moment he may say things about the other team that are rather harsh. When the game is finished, the rhetoric changes, and the other team is congratulated for their good effort. In our day and time, to use language of Jews that would say they are from “the synagogue of Satan” would be cruel, given the history of Christian anti-Semitism, and inconsistent with the use of the phrase in this context. For the Christian community in Smyrna, part of their affliction may have come for some in the local Jewish community.

In the midst of reading this work constructed in apocalyptic form, this bit of wisdom from Alexander Solzhenitsyn is worth remembering. If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere else insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were simply necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? (quoted in Jack Kornfield, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace)

The affliction experienced by those in the Smyrna Jesus community may even get worse, as some may have been and more may be imprisoned. John is certain this will only be for a brief time. Some may even suffer death for their faith, and John encourages them to stay true to that faith even in the face of death. To do so is to be given “the crown of life.” “The second death” is one of John’s apocalyptic images for the ultimate judgment of God (People’s New Testament Commentary). Though people may even die for the faith which has given them life, the promise is that such death will not be the last word. Such death will not be futile, but will be honored by God.

Revelation 2:12-17: Pergamum was also a large city of about 100,000 people about 70 miles northwest of Smyrna. In its precincts was found an enormous altar to Zeus. The message to them comes from Christ as the figure with a sharp, two-edged sword. The reference to “Satan’s throne” is probably a reference to the imperial temple with the Zeus altar. In our age, when inter-religious dialogue is encouraged, it is uncomfortable to hear another religious tradition so disparagingly referred to. Some Christians in our day would use the same kind of phrase for all non-Christian religious centers, but that is to take these remarks out of context. Remember that Christianity is here a minority faith, and one being persecuted to some degree. The religion being critiqued is a religion tied to the empire so that the two are inseparable. “The struggle between the materialistic and military values embodied in the Roman Empire and God’s rulership expressed in Jesus Christ is a vital theme of Revelation” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). The people of this Jesus Community have been faithful to their way of life in Christ, even when one, Antipas, was killed for his faith. We know nothing more of this figure.

Even though they are commended for their faith, there are also issues. The followers of Jezebel, Balaam, and the Nicolatians apparently encouraged accommodation to the pagan culture, including participation in pagan festivals and eating of meat ritually slaughtered in connection with a pagan temple. Other NT authors considered eating such meat to be a matter of indifference, which is not inherently wrong, but is sometimes to be avoided in order to avert misunderstandings. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). The concern about fornication may also be tied to temple rituals or may be a metaphor for any participation in pagan culture. Those who have participated in the activities described are encouraged to repent, to turn around, to turn over the soil of their hearts.

These texts should force us to ask about the shape of interfaith dialogue in our day and time, under very different circumstances than those of the readers of this work. In any event, those who remain faithful are promised a new name and hidden bread. In 586 BCE, when the Babylonians overtook the Jerusalem temple, the ark of covenant that contained the sacred bread was taken and never recovered. The author makes use of the idea of hidden manna here. The reference to a new name on a white rock is cryptic.

Revelation 2:18-29: Thyatira was a center of business and industry forty-five miles southeast of Pergamum, and the home of Lydia (Acts 16). Jesus is described here as “Son of God,” the only such reference in Revelation, but a contrast to imperial claims that the Caesar was “son of god.” The community is commended for its works – love, faith, service and patient endurance.” Not a bad combination of things to be known for. Not a bad goal for our churches today.

Even though they have much going for them, there are also concerns. Like in Pergamum, there are teachers who are raising concerns for the author – here, Jezebel – though this is probably a symbolic name, recalling the wife of King Ahab (I Kings 18-19). No one names their daughter “Jezebel”! She is teaching some accommodation to pagan culture including the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. The language of sexual immorality is almost certainly metaphorical here. Jezebel and all who follow her teaching of Christian faith are to turn away from it – repent. In verse 23, “children” is a metaphor for those who follow this person’s teaching, and so is the death they will suffer. It is an eschatological threat.

Jesus the Christ searches minds and hearts, and encourages faithfulness to the end. In the end the promise is that the faithful will rule in God’s new world. The phrase, “deep things of Satan” (verse 25) is probably as sarcastic put down of those whom the author opposes. They probably claimed to be teaching the deep things of God.

If the previous “letter” pushed us to ask questions about interfaith dialogue, this section asks us to do the same for intra-faith conversation. The language of unfaithfulness to Christ has been bandied about between Christians for centuries. Here is a note in the Scofield Reference Bible (original edition): “As Jezebel brought idolatry into Israel, so Romanism weds Christian doctrine to pagan ceremonies.” Great care needs to be taken here as well. I have argued again and again in this commentary that Christian faith has an elasticity to its expression. Some attempts to express Christian faith seem to stretch it beyond that elasticity, but our first response to persons who claim Christian faith should be attentive listening rather than quick labeling.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Revelation 1

Revelation 1:1-8: The book begins by telling us what it is, “the revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.” Let me elaborate on two parts of this phrase. The Greek word for what Revelation “shows” or “makes known” in the very first verse of the book is the same verb for “sign” as the signs in John’s Gospel and in Revelation 12. This verse tells us that the whole book is intended not as a slavishly literal kind of showing, but a deeper sign-level. We are invited to go with John on the apocalyptic journey, to experience the book’s transformative power. In order to go on that journey we have to let go of the literalist fixation, and come instead to Revelation with all our senses ready for God’s voice…. Think of Revelation’s imagery like that of a three-dimensional Magic Eye picture. The picture appears to be just flat rows of tiny, patterned shapes on the page. Only if you let go of a literalist fixation on each of those shapes and allow your eyes to blur does a deeper, three-dimensional picture come into view. (Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed, 96-97). Again, this is a helpful word about this wonderful and strange book.

“What must soon take place” - - - what does the writer mean by this? The Book of Revelation begins and ends with the announcement that the risen Christ will return soon to bring history to an end and establish the universal rule of God…. The longest period before the end mentioned in Revelation is this span of time described variously as 42 months, 1,260 days, or “a time, times, and half a time”…. This period became a traditional apocalyptic time frame. The period is not meant literally, but still represents only a short time. Present-day readers should not force John’s apocalyptic understanding into a modern chronological framework, as though he actually foresaw a long period of history…. Other NT authors began the reinterpretation of the earliest church’s near-expectation of the end in these (and other) ways, but John sees the events of his own time as the occasion to reassert the earliest Christian expectation that the end was, indeed, near. John expressed his faith in the thought forms of his day, one of which was the apocalyptic hope of the near parousia (return of Christ). History has shown that this form of the Christian hope was mistaken and should not continue to be repeated. Just as modern Christians can reinterpret John’s mistaken understanding of the shape of the world without thereby rejecting his message, so also modern Christians can take seriously John’s message of hope expressed in the apocalyptic form, which included the near expectation of the end, without continuing to repeat it in his terms. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible)

What both these extended commentaries assert is that Revelation needs to be read more on its own terms, and understood for what it is – poetic, artistic apocalyptic literature. When we view a traditional cowboy movie in the United States, we expect the good guys and bad guys to be pretty clearly distinguished, and we expect the good guys to win in the end, though not necessarily easily. Cowboy movies can communicate messages even as they follow this format, sometimes altering it slightly so as to emphasize a certain message – for instance Grace Kelly in High Noon is a rather untraditional cowboy movie character, but within that traditional movie her actions communicate a message – one’s principles are fine, but they may have to be modified when life is in danger. John used a traditional form to express his faith and his readers would have had certain expectations of the form – a near end, the good and bad easily distinguished. What is most important is how John used this form to communicate important messages about Christian faith. To understand these messages, we may need to see through the form to beyond it.

The message John shares is a message from God, through Jesus Christ delivered by an angel. It was a work intended to be read aloud, so it could be heard and its teachings followed. To do so makes one blessed. The need to read the work is emphasized in verse 4, where the author couches the revelation in the form of a letter, a form gaining widespread acceptance in the early church.

John writes from Patmos (v. 9) to churches in Asia (what is now eastern Turkey). The work is to be seen in this context, however, there were certainly more than seven churches in Asia. Seven is a significant number in Revelation. Seven represents completeness. It represents divine order. It is used fifty-five times in the book and is a major structural principle in the work, indicating that the author carefully composed this work. John continues on in letter format, offering a blessing, a word of thanksgiving. “Grace to you and peace from him who is and was and is to come.” This way of identifying God has an echo with the Book of Exodus where God is identified as the one who is who God is, or the one who will be who God will be. “The seven spirits” is difficult to understand but may simply be the writer’s way of speaking of God’s Spirit. It may also reflect first-century Judaism where seven principle angelic spirits were understood to carry out God’s purposes in the world. Jesus is identified as “Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” These are references to the story of his life and death, resurrection, and exaltation. The last statement would have been directly contradictory to the claims of Rome, where the emperor was seen as “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” Revelation will often challenge the imperial claims of Rome.

But this Jesus is not just a witness or a significant living presence, Jesus cares. Jesus loves us and in that love freed us. “By his blood” both echoes Israelite sacrificial religious practice and can be seen as another way of saying “through his life.” Jesus’ freeing love was present in his life, a life which ended in a dramatic death. There are any number of ways Christian theologians have described the dynamic of how the life, death and resurrection of Jesus free us from our sins, our self-destructive and other-destructive ways of living. The basic message is that in Jesus’ love we have been set free, and set free to be a new community, a different kingdom – a kingdom of priests. For those who don’t really gravitate toward the idea of being a priest, remember how important priests were in the religious systems of the time. Priests were the ones who experienced God directly, who had access to God and God’s beauty and holiness. Others participated in the religious life more vicariously. In this new economy of God in Jesus, all draw close to God, to the God who is the beginning and the end. God in Christ is coming again soon. Imagine how powerfully hopeful these words would have been to a besieged religious minority – you are important people in the kingdom of God, you are priests. What words might we use today to tell people that they are important because they are loved by God?

Revelation 1:9-20: John has alternated between writing about himself, sharing a blessing with his readers, and meditating on the reality of the God who the church knows in Jesus Christ. After a celebration of God and Jesus Christ, he returns briefly to sharing some of himself – exiled on the island of Patmos, a brother who shares with his readers persecution – but also the kingdom and patient endurance. It is not always easy to be part of God’s people, sometimes it brings persecution and the need for patient endurance. So much for a simple “prosperity gospel” which asserts that faith in Jesus Christ leads to material well-being and “the good life” understood in those terms. Patient endurance “connotes not mere passivity, but the tough-minded resistance to cultural pressures to conform that can be exercised by those who know that ‘the Lord our God the Almighty reigns’” (19:6) (New Interpreters Study Bible).

John asserts that he was in God’s Spirit, a reference not simply to a subjective religious experience so much as an assertion that this work comes not simply from the author’s imagination but from the imagination as inspired by God’s Spirit. He was in God’s Spirit on the Lord’s Day – the day of worship, and worship permeates this work. John hears a voice “like a trumpet.” The voice tells him to write what he sees and send it to the seven churches in Asia.

Now the visions begin. Turning to find the source of the voice he sees a heavenly, regal figure, and it is clear from the words the figure uses about himself – the living one who was dead but now is alive forevermore – that this is Jesus. Jesus is standing amidst seven golden lampstands. These represent the churches, but also evoke the Temple. The lights of the lamps in the Temple were representative of God’s presence. He is “one like the Son of Man” – a phrase taken from another visionary Biblical book, Daniel (7:13). This is a vision of “a human-like transcendent being of cosmic proportions” (New Interpreters Study Bible). John’s imagery is not merely a journalistic account of what he saw, but is expressed in the language of his Bible, combining features from the heavenly beings of Ezekiel, Daniel, and the description of the Ancient One in Daniel (7:9) (New Interpreters Study Bible). The seven stars were images borrowed from the empire; they are imperial symbolism. The sharp sword coming from the mouth reflects Isaiah 49:2, and the shining face evokes Judges 5:31. This language is not literal, but evocative. It cannot be represented graphically, but only in words that disorient the mind in its effort to picture them. The same cosmic hand that holds the stars is in the next sentence the personal hand placed upon John. (People’s New Testament Commentary).

The vision causes John to fall as though he were dead – a Jewish tradition was that to encounter God in such a way would lead to death. But the voice speaks a caring word, a powerful word that will be important throughout (a word we find with great frequency in the New Testament), “Do not be afraid.” It is a word based in the reality of the one who speaks it – the one who is first and last, the one who has overcome death and Hades (the world of the dead). When such a one as this tells you to write, you write!