Monthly Archives: May 2014

Revelation 8-9: The Seven Trumpets

As we said last time, it’s important to remember that these are not 21 separate events but this same series of 7 seen in escalating scale. As we come to the end of a cycle the sense of time becomes strange. Here we return to the image of the prayers of the saints, a tangible presence rising up in the heavenly throne room. When they’re thrown down on the Earth we see again the signs of theophany, earthquakes, clouds and lightning. The prayers of the Saints are not wasted, God responds by drawing nearer to the Creation. So we stand paused at the end of this first cycle, the seals. God is right at the edge of the Creation, silently waiting for the final moment to bring all things to resolution.

And jarringly John throws us back to the beginning. A new cycle, this time of trumpets, begins. This section offer us another perspective on the same events, a series of catastrophes which unravel the wider Roman world, ending again with God drawing near.

This time John is bringing together two different series of images. The first is the thematic imagery of the Exodus and the 10 plagues. Our first trumpet evokes the 7th plague, bringing fire and hail. Our second trumpet is the 1st plague, the falling mountain turning the seas to blood. The fourth trumpet evokes the 9th plague, leaving the whole world in darkness. And the consuming insects arise at the 5th trumpet. We’ll jump back to what exactly this Egyptian motif means in a second.

Layered on top of this Exodus imagery is a theme of sweeping natural disaster. All four of the classic regions of nature are coming apart, the land, the seas, the rivers and the skies. This is all of Creation starting to come apart at the seams, a response to God’s silence and withdrawal from the unrepentant world. There’s nowhere to go.

The 5th and 6th trumpet are some of the strangest images in Revelation. Where we just witnessed the natural elements turning against Rome and the Roman world now we see the personified corruption and evil of the human world destroying itself. Our Locusts are not some otherworldly evil but the very real tangible, consuming evil of Rome and its corruption turned back on itself. Their leader is called a “king,” they arise from the earth and their leader’s name is Destruction and Apollyon (a pun on the emperor’s self-made association with the god Apollo). The emperor is portrayed as a king of the damned and the demonic, heading a corrupt army ravaging his own kingdom and hastening its death.

The 6th trumpet evokes images of outside invasion. The fear of cavalrymen invading from across a great river taps the Roman fear of the Parthians, the one great military power they could never overtake, a constant threat to Rome’s rule. When we take all 6 of these together we see a systematic collapse of Rome (much how it historically happened) natural disasters coupled with internal corruption and outside invasion.

But why does God ultimately do this? These things sound horrific, tortures and calamities falling on the world. Well, we have a couple of points to dig through. First, every single one of these events uses the same verb the passive form of “give.” God allows these things to unfold. God is not causing the events but rather God is allowing what would naturally occur to continue without the protection and shelter God had previously sustained. Without God’s sustaining power the natural world collapses on humanity, one catastrophe after another. Without God’s will at work, the powers and principalities built by humanity to help themselves become evil forces which dominate and destroy them. God isn’t directly punishing the world but instead allowing it to fall under the consequences of its own brokenness and evil.

We also have a literary distinction. In the ancient world there was little focus on individuals. We are accustomed to a different kind of narrative that zeroes in on specific characters, their motivations and lives and goals. In ancient literature, as harsh as it sounds, sometimes people and groups of people function only as set pieces, showing something without necessarily bringing you the baggage of a fully detailed character. The focus here is not on those who die but the whole world of those who witness their deaths and still don’t repent. The character isn’t “Bill who gets killed in demon locust attack” but “The sinful and rebellious world,” These fractional population deaths (we’re up to 1/3 from ¼ in the Seven Seals), are blows against the world which can’t see past its own corrupt gains.

And finally, continuing the Exodus theme, these woes are not meant to simply punish the world but to bring it to repentance. This isn’t random, unavoidable damage. The last thought John leaves us with in chapter 9 is one of repentance.

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Revelation 6-7: The Seven Seals

Starting in Revelation chapter 6 the organizational structure of the book changes dramatically. Chapter 1 was our introduction. 2-3 gave us a snapshot of the world and the struggles faced by the churches. 4-5 told us of God and the heavenly throne room and the role of Jesus.

Now we come to the part of Revelation most people are most familiar with (or think they are). Chapters 6-7 tell us of the seven seals, the first in three series of 7 apocalyptic woes. If we try to understand these events as a linear series of 21 events we will quickly get confused. Instead we need to understand them as the same cycle of judgment told in three escalating sequences, each one the same events but growing in intensity. They show a series of judgments or woes (the part of Revelation people talk about the most), usually one or more interlude scenes and then they come to a sudden stop before the next series of 7 begins. This cycle of interruption will repeat twice (7 seals and 7 trumpets) before the true conclusion (the 7 bowls).

Our first cycle begins with the classic image of the four Horsemen. This series of judgments is keyed specifically for Roman audiences. Each of the Horsemen represents a very specific fear, some unsteady load bearing pillar Rome is sitting on. This isn’t just a portrait of generic woes but a very specific outline of how a great human empire can come apart at the seams.

The first rider, the White Rider, with his white robe and bow, is the image of the Parthian archer, a specific neighboring country whom Rome was never able to conquer. He is in some ways a parody of our Jesus. Each one conquers but the Parthian rider returns to the old fashioned violent sort of conquest. He represents foreign invasion from beyond Rome’s borders.

The red rider is the collapse of the Pax Romana. He doesn’t just take “peace” as a generic concept. He overthrows Rome’s control over their conquered peoples. The powerful elites of Rome lived in constant fear of the people they conquered, waiting for the day their pain and suffering finally outgrew their fear of the Roman army and they violently overthrew their governors. The White Rider is real War, an outside invasion by an army. The Red Rider is rebellion and violent unrest against Rome.

The black rider is economic collapse. Rome was economically unsteady to begin with. Different segments of the Empire relied on others to produce the goods they needed and the Roman government relied on constant conquest to keep growing its tax and resource base to support the capital and the army. The specific image they give is an ironic kind of famine, the sort caused by a breadbasket province like Egypt rebelling or somehow being lost. The staple foods like breads and grains become wildly expensive while, ironically, oil and wine (luxury items) keep their price. This was even more intimidating than it sounds because imperially subsidized bread was one of the ways the empire controlled the poor masses. In today’s world this might look alot like the 2008 economic woes, where many working class people had great financial losses but the handful at the very top came through relatively unscathed.

And of course the pale rider, death, who was the final and ultimate fear of Rome. This one doesn’t need much explaining. Death sums up the other three riders, together they will devastate a quarter of the known world.

But here we see the weird attention deficit of John’s vision. In the fifth seal he suddenly transitions from these Roman nightmares to a vision of the throne room. Where those who have already been martyred for God await God’s final judgment and resurrection. The “altar” here is Rome’s courts and executioners, their faithful and innocent deaths a lamb-like sacrifice patterned after Jesus. This vision was an important reminder that those who suffered and died were not forgotten but close to God’s heart, the cause of his judgment. If you were a 1st century Christian suffering under violent persecution, seeing friends and neighbors hurt and killed, this vision is an essential assurance that God is not only aware but moved by what happens to those who love Him.

The sixth seal has the markers of theophany, an appearance by God. Strange unnatural events like eclipses and earthquakes accompany God’s presence. Taken together they tell us that God is drawing near, that God is going to make an appearance to put things to their final rest.

Instead of the expected 7th seal, John’s vision pulls us into another aside. The classic figure of 144,000 is not at all mysterious. It uses numbers we are already familiar with multiplied together. This tells us to take their meanings together. In this case we have 12, 12 and 1000. 12 is the number of tribes and disciples, it represents those who worship God under the old and new covenants. 1000 is a multiplier of scale, telling us this is a huge number (not necessarily just a literal 144,000). This is the living church across all the Creation.

Then John pulls back our camera even further. We see not only the living Saints but those who have gone on before them. This is a vision of the church triumphant, the church of all the believers, living and dead, of all nations and peoples and language coming together in worship. This is an important reminder to the early Christians who are persecuted and isolated, seeing that they are a part of a grand church of all God’s people.

Once again we place ourselves in this persecuted 1st century mindset. When you are a suffering, persecuted religious minority under a brutal and idolatrous imperial structure you would feel incredibly alone. In the Southern American context you can usually see another church from the front door of your church. But in this first century world churches are isolated from one another, swimming in a sea of Grecco-Roman paganism. Every community event and celebration would be steeped in pagan religious practices. Not only was there the immediate and tangible fear of outright persecution but also the slow subtle separation that refusing to participate in pagan events would create. This vision John relates reminds these Christians that they are not alone but part of something larger than the suffering they’re experiencing.

Our seventh seal actually extends slightly into chapter 8. We have seen the escalating movement, we see the storm clouds of God’s presence gathering at the edge of Creation. Everything seems about to unfold and then…silence.

Revelation 4-5: The Heavenly Throne Room and the Lion-Shaped Hole

Revelation 4 and 5 are the heart of Revelation. They are the most important two chapters and if you do not understand them fully and deeply everything that follows will be distorted and damaged. John has transported us to the Heavenly Throne Room. Like in chapter 1 we return to the incredibly detailed language of the prophets. John wants us to soak in every detail, each piece is a part of the grand painting he is offering to explain the vision he has seen.

These two chapters draw from a double set of images, the first is the Judeo-Christian gallery of prophetic images. John is drawing from the throne and heavenly visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel and Daniel to convey God’s presence and His relationship to the Creation. But John is also drawing on Roman imagery. The Heavenly throne room is a reverse-parody, it reveals all of Rome’s royal and imperial trappings as a pale imitation of the true ruler of the universe. Caesar is not a god or a true king but a boy costumed in his family’s sheets, playing at something he isn’t.

First, there is the throne, a single highest heavenly throne over everything. God is the King of Kings, the ultimate ruler who sits over everything. John uses the language of gemstones and rainbows to convey the shining, majesty of God enthroned. The first century world was not particularly colorful, extravagant colors were markers of royalty and prosperity and power. The thunder and lightning remind us of the cloud of God’s presence in Exodus and the appearance to Elijah at Mt. Horeb. This breath-taking throne room is ultimately occupied by God/Christ, not Caesar.

The twenty-four thrones are the apostles and the twelve tribes, all those who believe, the old and new, joined together in worship. They rule because they too have “conquered” but their rulership is only under and through Christ, hence the laying down of their crowns. It also echoes the 24 attendants (lictors) who surrounded the Caesars in their public appearances.

The sea was an ancient symbol of death and chaos, sometimes personified as a dragon (like in the Babylonian Creation myth which Genesis echoes). The sea is so still and calm that it looks like glass or crystal. In God’s presence death and chaos are absolutely conquered, held in stillness like the depths he pushed back from the dry land at Creation.

The four living creatures are angelic representations of all the animals and creatures in Creation, each one the peak of a Jewish category of created things, humanity, the wild animals (lion), the domesticated animals (oxen) and the birds (eagle). They also have the six wings and the constant song of the Cherubim and Seraphim as we see them in the prophets. Together with the 24 elders, they are the faithful joining with all created things to continuously praise and honor God.

The book in God’s hand contains everything that will come to pass, when it is unsealed everything that follows begins to unfold. Whether the scroll is meant to be seen as a will or inheritance (as some scholars say) or God’s book of life, we know for certain that it contains God’s judgment which we will see unfold in the next 7 chapters. But John throws us back into an advent-esque despair, there can be no final judgment, God will not yet set things right, because none can unseal the scroll.

But one of the Elders turns to comfort John saying “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” There is a Lion! A messianic symbol. This Lion is God’s warrior-prophet-king who will overthrow all evil and earthly powers and rule the whole Creation. The Lion is strength, royalty, bloodshed, honor and violence. It is the most powerful thing in all of Creation. The Elder dramatically points us towards a lion-shaped hole in our apocalyptic story.

We know how apocalypses are supposed to go. John is joining in a long Jewish tradition of apocalypses. Once this Lion hits the scene the next dozen chapters will look like a scene from ‘300’ as the Lion rampages around, grinding up and destroying the evil ones in dramatic blood-spraying slow motion. Bring on the Lion!

And here John flips the whole world on its head. Into this Lion shaped hole in our Apocalypse John gives us this

“Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth”

Into our Lion shaped hole John plugs “the little slaughtered lamb.” There is a diminutive on this word. Not Lamb. Lambkin. Little Lamb. The very image of weakness, meekness, vulnerability, defenselessness, innocence and purity. And it has already been slaughtered, the word here specifically implies an altar sacrifice. It stands but it still bears the wounds of its death.

Into our Lion shaped hole, John has placed Jesus. Crucified, “forgive them for they know not what they do,” “turn the other cheek,” “die by the sword,” “forgive 70 times 7 times” Jesus. And this is why Revelation is a Christian book. There are lots of Jewish apocalypses that end with God’s violent wrath poured out on the world. But John has taken the Apocalypse formula and stuck a negative sign right down in the heart of it. Everything is inverted and flipped upside down.

Because strength and power are redefined. Strength looks like forgiveness. Power looks like faithfulness. That mystery word, conquering, that John has already used almost 20 times, is redefined as a faithful innocent death at the hands of evil. That throne at the center of all Creation is a rugged Cross, still stained with blood. John is telling us that God has forever redefined the vision of winning.

And this is the place from which Revelation will unfold. Every plague, every bowl, every trumpet, every seal must be interpreted in light of the crucified one who is at its center. We’re not suddenly seeing a new, hidden side of Jesus where he becomes the Punisher and wreaks havoc on the ones who wronged him. Whatever happens must be consistent with who we already have seen Jesus to be. The slaughtered lamb, wrapped in the Holy Spirit, will take the scroll and break its seals.

Revelation 2-3: The Letters to the 7 Churches and early Christian Persecution

Revelation 2 continues the introductory section of Revelation. Though using more colorful images and language than Paul, John the Revelator begins laying out an epistle-esque (or epistolary if you’re feeling fancy) series of notes to the 7 churches. We probably shouldn’t worry too much about whether these were intended for the specific churches they were addressed to or whether they were meant to speak to the whole church. What they do instead for us is start to give us a picture of the kind of situations that John was writing to.

Since we left Paul and his letters and the book of Acts a lot had changed for the church. In the early days of the church Christianity was viewed as another school of Judaism. And Judaism had unique protections under Roman law. Rome had a great appreciation for ancient things and Judaism was one of the oldest practiced faiths in their day. They had exemptions from conscription into the army and certain Roman religious practices which were mandated in other parts of the empire. But in 70 AD Israel’s last and final rebellion against Rome was crushed with devastating force, costing them both their protections and the temple itself.

This unrest accelerated the separation of Jew and Christian. Suddenly the broader Greco-Roman world was becoming aware of Christians as a unique religion in their own right. But Christians, much like the Jewish faith they were slowly separating from, were a problem to the Roman world.

For Rome there was no divide between church and state, secular (non-religious) and religious. Everything was both. To be a good citizen (or resident since most folks weren’t real citizens), not only meant paying taxes but participating in a variety of religious activities. You couldn’t just follow Roman law, you also needed to worship the goddess Roma (personification of Rome) and in some areas even worship current and previous Caesars. This was the Roman version of pledging allegiance to the flag or singing the national anthem (but more hardcore).

This was a huge problem for the monotheistic Christians. They couldn’t worship Caesar or Roma. This made them look very very suspicious bordering on traitorous. If you didn’t worship Roma or Caesar your other behavior is called into question. And in fact this “atheism” which Christians were accused of (for not believing in a wide world of gods but just one) also separated them from social, business and community life. The coliseums, athletic events, festivals and celebrations, local tradesman groups and even birthday and funeral celebrations all required elements of pagan worship. They would make sacrifices to Artemis and Zeus or chthonic hero cults like Hercules. This meant that not only did Christians look atheistic and un-patriotic but they also seemed to be intentionally isolating themselves from their local communities.

Imagine if instead of the flag the US had a giant golden eagle called Starry. And if you wanted to go to school, or a baseball game or Target you had to worship Starry. This was a huge issue for the early churches. They were seen as immoral, dangerous and hateful because of their monotheism.

The situations John describes in the different churches all seem to be different ways of dealing with these issues. When we put the first four letters together we get a portrait of a widespread problem. John uses metaphorical language like “Jezebel” (no one in this time would have called their child Jezebel), “Satan’s throne,” and “The Synagogue of Satan” to talk about how this issue was impacting their churches. These Nicolaitans, together with this “Jezebel” were probably people who considered themselves Christian who were convincing other Christians that worshiping Caesar and Roma (or just pretending to) was somehow OK to God. Jezebel was a well known Hebrew image of both seduction and idolatry, a common prophetic metaphor. The “Synagogue of Satan” was probably a church or literal synaoguge which was buying into these views and mixing Imperial-worship with the worship of God. “Satan’s throne” would have been a literal temple to Roma and the Caesars (something we know was found in several of these cities). Balaam was probably a teacher or faction who were allowing small acts of idolatry like taking part in functions in pagan temples.

We see here that John has no problem mingling Satan, the Devil and Rome. He sees Rome with its idolatry and hatred and violence as a clear personification or instrument of evil. This mingling will help us understand some of the more bizarre images we’ll find later.

This might sound like a small thing but remember that Christians were already dying for this. If you refused to denounce or blaspheme Jesus and worship Roma and the Caesars you could be jailed, beaten or put to death. Just because the Romans were kind of tepid, half-hearted or disorganized about these early persecutions doesn’t mean they weren’t still horrific and violent (that was kind of Rome’s default setting). The letters of Pliny and Trajan from around 110 AD, help show both the boring officialness of Roman persecution layered in tight with the awful violence and callous harm. They are very short and you should read the whole thing here

http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/pliny.html

So John’s audience has some very harsh decisions to make. Do you remain faithful to God even if it costs you everything? And what does this have to do with the sevenfold reference to conquering that John has made, using the term in the close of each letter to the churches? Who are the conquerors? We’ll stay with these questions as we continue on in Revelation.

Revelation 1: The Foreword

Revelation 1 is our first chance to dig into the unique language and structure of Revelation. We immediately begin to see some of the unique elements that make Revelation unlike any other New Testament book. Like any other NT letter, John the Revelator begins Revelation with a salutation and a doxology, identifying himself, his audience, the occasion for writing and finally a passage of praise and glory to God.

Unfortunately we often treat these sections as less important than the “body” of the book or letter. We skim them quickly and then jump into the more important argument of the writing. But these passages, much like a foreword or introduction in a contemporary book, often give us essential hints, markers or roadmaps to understanding what is going to come afterwards.

In this case John the Revelator is already tipping his hand to several of the elements we are going to see later in the book. First, even in the first chapter we get a taste of the strange Hebraicized Greek that John is going to occasionally use. The oddly fractured Gk. of “him who is and was and is to come” has what would be considered grammatical errors in the strictest sense but might be an intentional stylized choice by John.

John also calls his writing a “prophecy.” We tend to use this term to mean “prediction” but it is better understood as presenting things from a God’s eye view. Like the Hebrew prophets John isn’t primarily concerned with offering glimpses of the future but rather showing the way God interprets the events which have occurred and are occurring and will come to pass (setting up a contrast with the human way of seeing those same happenings).

This prophetic connection isn’t minor either. John practically swims in the prophetic traditions, drawing imagery from nearly every prophet. In v. 1 he uses the Gk. term “semaino” which often gets translated “show” but more specifically means “to show through signs” or “signify.” John is going to convey his story through vivid imagery and pictures.

Vs. 12-16 are one of the most vivid passages of the entire New Testament up to this point. Even the longer Gospels focus on clipped, narrative focused phrases to convey as much story as possible in the shortest document. John, in contrast, pulls out all the stops. This passage has more color, imagery and description than any NT passage before it. And he pulls the picture almost wholesale from Daniel chapters 7 and 10.

But John doesn’t just borrow the language, he makes it uniquely his own to convey something specific about what God has shown him. Daniel offers two different images, one of God or the “ancient one” and the other of the “Son of Man,” a messianic hero-king. John combines the two images, taking familiar prophetic images and reusing them to describe Jesus in a new and vivid way, giving us a human figure who is somehow also God. Jesus and the Father are blurred together throughout Revelation. In a loose, early Trinitarian kind of way, John shows us Father, Son and the (Seven) Spirits together at the throne of Creation.

This chapter also offers us our first glimpses of John’s use of numerology. While some read Revelation with weird algebra to turn to the various numbers into codes the answer is far simpler. In John’s day sharply accurate numbers (the kind we expect today from reporting or stories) was impossible. There were few reliable head counts. So instead they used numbers as another layer of meaning and significance to events. These would have been common sense, obvious elements to the 1st century Jewish-Christian audience John wrote to. The equivalent of talking about “lucky 7” or “unlucky 13” today.

1 was the number of unity and wholeness. It signifies the thing itself, in its entirety.

2 was a number for strength, truth and witness, drawing from legal traditions and language in proverbs. It also sometimes conveys the Jewish tradition, separated into the Law and the Prophets (like we saw in the Transfiguration in the Gospels).

3 was the heavenly number, not only the spiritual heavens but the literal skies and stars.

4 was the four corners of the world, the four directions, the four winds.

6 was a number of incompletion, falling short of perfection and God.

7 was the divine number, the number for completion, perfection and God. It is heaven and earth together. Sometimes 7 was used to mean all of a thing. (Like when Jesus says you should forgive 70 times 7 times he didn’t literally mean 490 times but you should forgive indefinitely)

10 conveyed a sense of great size or duration, often used as a multiplier or intensifier on top of another number.

12 was the number of the church and those who believe. It was the 12 disciples and the 12 tribes.

Sometimes numbers were cut in half to convey incompletion or a sudden stop. 1260 days is a period of 7 years (which could imply a long or indefinite period) cut in half, implying a period of time that will not go on forever.

Revelation 0: Intro and Background

Before we begin studying the Book of Revelation there are a few important pieces we need to walk through. Some of them are important to read any book of Scripture (like author, audience and time period) but there are a few which are unique to Revelation.

 

Author: Who is this John who write the book of Revelation? Well the short answer is we’re not super sure. The earliest biblical commentators of the first few centuries always erred on the side of simplicity when ascribing authorship. That means the most books by the least number of figures. So for them this clearly means that John the Gospel writer, John the apostle, John the Elder (who wrote the 3 epistles) and John the Revelator are all one person. This makes for a neat answer but it doesn’t really line up with what we actually have.

First, all three of these sets of books Gospel, Epistles and Revelation, are addressed in a different way. The Gospel writer refers to himself in the third person, calling himself “the beloved disciple.” The epistle author seems to call himself “The Elder.” And the author of Revelation refers to himself by name “his servant John.”

We also have a writing style problem. While all three sets of books have overlapping images and words like “lamb” “light” and “darkness” Revelation completely loses the love language of the Gospel and epistles. There is also a technical style difference. The Gospel of John is some of the clearest simplest Greek in the New Testament. Its so easy some professors don’t want to use it to teach beginners because its so basic. The epistles are also fairly simple, technically solid Greek. Revelation’s Greek is a mess. The author was definitely a native Hebrew speaker and writer. Then he either learned Greek poorly and thus made lots of mistakes (like saying “They is” in English). Or he learned Greek very very well and made an intentional poetic choice to use Hebrew phrasings in the Greek to highlight his Old Testament images. Either way it is very very different from the other 4 books. So for our purposes we’re going to assume we have a distinct “John the Revelator” or “John of Patmos” who is familiar with or somehow related to the apostle/Gospel writer John but is not the same person.

 

Date: There are two fairly narrow windows which could be the time period for Revelation. Based on the cultural references, especially those around Rome and its emperors, we can get some fairly precise dating. John seems to assume that Nero is dead at the time of writing but still holds him as highly culturally significant which would put us around 70 AD. However, Nero was not a major proponent of the emperor worship to which Revelation is at least in part responding to. He also did little systematic persecution beyond the borders of the city of Rome. Our second window is right around 100 AD. In this case the author is making some allusions to Nero but mostly to link him to the emperor Domitian who did in fact demand emperor-worship which was the root of his persecution of Christians. The Domitian date seems more likely because of the intersection of the imperial cult and a widespread state sponsored persecution. So it was likely around 100 AD.

 

Audience: So who was John writing to? Well it was certainly Christians sometime around 100 AD. They had deep familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures and were suffering under Roman persecution. Though he cites 7 specific churches its likely his letter was meant to be circulated to any Christian who was being persecuted. Those 7 specific churches were evenly distributed along a major trade route, likely chosen as ideal sites for mass distribution.

 

Purpose: Revelation is ultimately about hope and faith in times of trial. John wrote to lift the spirits of Christians suffering under intense persecution, giving them a vision of God’s ultimate victory and rescue. This was to give them the strength to continue to resist Roman influence and idolatry even under threat of death.

 

Genre: Revelation is an Apocalypse (from the greek word Apocalupso which is the first word of the book) a specific mostly Jewish genre of book which literally means “Unveiling.” Apocalypse is similar to but ultimately different from prophecy. It is usually published under the name of a famous Jewish figure like Moses (though Revelation breaks this pattern). It talks about the world in terms of rich, vivid and sometimes seemingly contradictory images and symbols. References to the world around them and the Hebrew Scriptures fill small details with big significance. The closest modern parallel would be something like a political cartoon, where symbolism is drawn from current and past events to offer up some kind of insight. Apocalypses are usually focused around dualism, opposing pairs like good/evil, light/darkness. They often include messengers, angels, dreams and break the world down into a current and coming age.

 

 

So we have one more important question, the one which is unique to Revelation. Is Revelation about the past or the future? There are some strong arguments for each.

The Past: Revelation seems to mostly be about Roman persecution of Christianity during a very specific point in history. It references ancient emperors and uses a lot of imagery and symbols unique to the first 1st/2nd century Roman world. And in fact Rome has fallen since Revelation was written, seemingly fulfilling much of its words. Also, John was writing about a very urgent present situation. It seems strange if not cruel to tell people who are suffering deeply this very moment to “hold on because sometime thousands of years from now God will fix this.”

 

The Future: Well, Jesus hasn’t had a glorious second coming yet. We would probably have noticed. There also seem to be large portions of the story which haven’t quite come to a head yet. So it certainly seems that some if not all of this story have yet to play out.

 

There is also another way of reading Revelation, a view called Dispensationalism which situates us part of the way through the book of Revelation. Different passages correspond to different points in history, usually lined up around European history and the Catholic Church. So the book moves from the past and is heading towards the future.

 

Well, many of you have spent enough time in Colby-style youth lessons by now to know that when I present you with an A or B (or C) question the answer is probably “both and neither.” Revelation is simultaneously about the past, the present and the future together. Revelation is a historically rooted book which conveys its meaning through first century and ancient Hebrew imagery. It was written to a group of Christians in the past and had a specific real meaning for them. Revelation is also a book about the future. It is about God’s final victory and the restoration of the whole creation, something which we have not yet seen but never quit awaiting.

 

But the place where Revelation really hit us is here in the present. Revelation is an unveiling. It is God peeling back the curtain and showing us the way things are right now. The patterns of powers and empires, good and evil and ages and martyrs and the suffering of those who carry their cross and challenge this world, all of those things are just as true today as they were in 100 AD. So we will use the historic images to help us understand and we will chart our course by a future resolution but ultimately Revelation is a book about living faithfully in the world the way it really is.

Isaiah 58 and Amos 2, Praise and Mercy (30HFHVBC Devotional 3)

Isaiah 58
1Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practised righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgements,
they delight to draw near to God.
3 ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
13 If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honourable;
if you honour it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Amos 5
18 Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
19   as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
25 Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 26You shall take up Sakkuth your king, and Kaiwan your star-god, your images that you made for yourselves; 27therefore I will take you into exile beyond Damascus, says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts.

These might be two of the hardest passages of Scripture for Christians in churches today to live into. God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, not just denouncing injustice but rejecting the worship and adoration of the unjust. This is a hard hard word to hear. This passage actually gives us what one might call the thesis statement of the prophets, right worship, justice and love for neighbor are all so intimately interwoven that we can’t meaningfully do one without the other.

In the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the stories from the start of the Kinghood of David and on, we see a repeated cycle. The powerful upper classes of society become wealthy and complacent. They fall out of their trust and relationship with God. They turn to worshiping idols. And they abuse the poor, the stranger and the vulnerable. Isaiah brings together all the different prophets when he tells us that these three pieces rise and fall together. When we trust God with our lives we live justly, we worship truly and we treat others well (and doing all of these things probably also means we are not unjustly rich either). But when we begin to fail in one of these we tend to lose the others. Wealth drives us to protect wealth by turning to other gods who make false promises. It drives us to abuse others to grow and defend that wealth. It’s a vicious cycle that plays out again and again. Even wise Solomon lapsed into idolatry and injustice in his complacent life of luxury, conscripting Israelites to build a massive temple to God even as he set up idolatrous altars around the kingdom.

While few of us would consider ourselves rich that is because we are usually comparing ourselves to others in the very narrow world of middle class (and higher) American culture. When we set our possessions and lives against the global community, all people everywhere, we realize that we are actually sitting not just towards the top of the global pile but actually at its peak. This makes these passages quite a bit more worrying. What seems to be a comfortable middle in the United States and the industrialized world looks palatial and extravagant to much of the world.

These passages remind us that our worship can’t exist in a vacuum. Never, in the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament, has God separated out our worship and our lives. We have to back our songs of praise with mercy and our justice must be rooted in our worship. We can’t have one without the other. The two hold us in balance and help us to grow in our faith and our relationship with God. These passages help to keep us honest before God.

Matthew 25, Jesus with skin on (30HFHVBC Devotional 2)

31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

When moderate Christians talk about judgment we often feel uncomfortable. When we read passages where God threatens or enacts some kind of judgment we might even feel embarrassed. Like hanging around an older relative who’s started to say awkward things in public. We have this subtext of “Oh God, you don’t mean that.” Jesus and mercy and forgiveness and love are the whole story now. Judgment is some sort of historical holdover.

But this isn’t really a whole answer. Ultimately, we don’t want to go to either extreme, completely ignoring words of judgment in Scripture or making them the central or even only thing we talk about. But this leaves us in a hard place. People just generally have a hard time finding balance between two contradictory positions. So what do we do?

Well we have to remember something important right out of the gate. We have a very different perspective on judgment in this time and place because we are living very comfortable lives. God’s judgment looks like an unnecessary burden. But there are places in the world where horrific things are happening. Where people strive and struggle and do their best and then something awful happens. Something or someone takes what little they had away. There is weeping, bleeding, bone deep brokenness being inflicted on the world and if God is God that has to matter.

We see this so rarely around us because we are blessed to be in a place of deep safety. But much of the world needs judgment, needs the profound intervention of God and God’s people which says “this evil which has happened and continues to happen is not right and will not continue forever” Thousands and thousands of children under five die each day from poverty and hunger. Girls seeking an education to free them from poverty are harassed and abducted and killed. Millions go hungry when we have enough food to feed the world twice over. If Jesus is who we believe He is then we cannot call ourselves his followers and say that these things go unnoticed by God and will be allowed to go on forever. We cannot be uninvolved.

What is even more amazing is what Jesus claims here. The distant infinite cosmic, mountaintop and creation, heights and depths and stars in the sky God took on flesh at Bethlehem. God incarnate. But Jesus goes a step further. Because Jesus didn’t just take on the human condition of one first century dusty peasant rabbi but here in Matthew 25 he takes on all the human condition. Everywhere someone suffers and hurts, every time someone is struck or beaten or broken down, Jesus is there.

God stakes God’s self on and in humans. Jesus says if you want to see me, know me, serve me, go find the broken and the hungry and there I’ll be. When we fix our eyes on Jesus in worship Jesus points beyond himself and back into the world, reminding us of our brothers and sisters in need. When we serve our brothers and sisters in need and look into their eyes we see Jesus staring back at us.