Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Revelation 14

Revelation 14:1-5: These chapters in Revelation seem to have a first-century MTV feel, that is, we get quick cuts from one vision to the next – “then I saw, then I looked.” The previous chapter gave us two beasts along with the dragon previously introduced. This chapter begins with a counter vision – the Lamb and 144,000 people. The Lamb and the symbolically numbered 144,000 are a consoling picture, meant to reassure Christians that they will survive the assaults of the dragon and the two beasts (Brown, Introduction to the New Testament, 793).

Within this consoling picture are a couple of items that require some additional comment. The number 144,000 is certainly symbolic. It is a large number, thus reassuring to the minority Christian communities to whom John is writing. It connotes the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. It is a large number, but only represents “the first fruits” of those who will know God and the Lamb (v. 5). This first fruit is already in the heavenly realm (though they are also on earth with the Lamb – the images shift). In contrast to those who have the mark of the beast, these are marked by God and the Lamb. Not only are they marked by God, but they know a new song that only those who know God can sing. One might say that these people are “in tune” with God! The language about “virginity” is metaphoric – connoting ritual purity, ceremonial purity, the readiness of soldiers for battle, and the ascetic life of prophets. The more important part of the metaphor is that these are those who will follow the Lamb wherever the Lamb goes. There is a purity in their lives.

When things are difficult we all need to know we are not alone. We also need to see the direction our lives our going – toward a purer life of love.

Revelation 14:6-13: The vision shifts again – “then I saw an angel,” this will be the first of three angels John sees. The first angels has “an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on earth.” The word “gospel” means “good news” and was used in the emperor cult to describe the deeds of the emperor. While there are 144,000 redeemed in heaven, God’s redemptive work continues on earth. All are encouraged and invited to get in tune with God, to worship the one who created heaven and earth – not the current ruler of the empire.

While this angel proclaims good news and invites people into a new relationship with God, a second angel proclaims that Babylon (Rome) has fallen. It was unthinkable that Rome, “the eternal city,” would ever fall, just as it was unthinkable that the Christian message would turn out to be the eternal gospel (People’s New Testament Commentary).

A third angel announces dire consequences for those who worship the beast. Anyone who tries to imagine this infinitely-worse-than-Auschwitz picture as somehow objectively real must ask whether God or John does not here overdo it. Such a picture calls into question both the justice and the character of God…. Such language does not function to give an objective picture of what shall in fact happen to God’s enemies, the outsiders…. John’s language does not deliver a doctrine about the fate of outsiders, but functions to warn insiders, who ponder the question, “Is it really so bad to participate in the Roman worship?” John regards this worship as making a this-worldly substitute for the one Creator and Lord, and answers, “More terrible than you can imagine!”… As objectifying language about what shall happen to our enemies, it is cruel beyond imagination; as confessional language, intended not to describe the fate of outsiders but to encourage insiders to remain faithful, it functions precisely like the language of Jesus in the Gospels. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

This interpretation is most consistent with the admonition in verse 12: “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.” The last phrase is literally “Jesus-faith.” John steps out of his visionary work to draw the lesson of the visions – stay faithful, hold on. For some this may mean death, but John argues that there is a fate worse than death, giving up what is most valuable, living by skewed values. To do so is to contribute to destruction and torment in the world, to create garbage out of one’s life. It is possible that John was not immune from the temptation to wish that his enemies would suffer torment. Most people I know who feel most strongly about hell are convinced that hell is for others, not for themselves. Is wishing eternal torment for one’s enemies consistent with Jesus and Paul’s admonitions to love enemies?

Revelation 14:14-20: The visionary scene shifts again – to a white cloud on which sits one like the Son of Man, and he is wearing a crown. The chapter begins with one Christ-vision and begins to wrap up with another Christ-vision. Chronology is irrelevant here, this is a visionary sequence, and as a visionary, metaphoric work, the same figure can morph from one image to another. In the first Christ-vision, the Lamb was with the faithful. Here the Christ-figure is ready to bring final judgement.

There is a mixture of imagery used here – a grain harvest, a harvest of grapes, a winepress out of which flows blood. Are all the images negative images of God’s judgment, or are there mixed images of hope and threat? In the Gospels, the harvest is a harvest of righteousness. Wine and blood are often redemptive images. The main issue in interpreting these images is whether these visions express unqualified judgment in a negative sense, or whether they also somehow represent God’s redemptive work, not only through the blood of Christ but through the blood of martyrs…. The pictures of blood, torment, divine wrath, and judgment all exceed what the imagination can comprehend, but the reader should also remember that the unthinkable has already happened in the transformation of the lion of God’s wrath into the Lamb. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

The language of judgment is most helpful to me when it reminds me that I cannot simply go on forever without making important decisions about where I stand, where my life is headed, what values I want to be evident in my life. Everyday I make choices about living, loving, caring, compassion, justice and those choices matter. They are not inconsequential.

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