Wednesday 20th May 2020
Study 6: Revelation 21:2, 9-22:5. The new Jerusalem descending
After the three sets of seven verbal photographs depicting the broken world, we find a set of seven more verbal photographs of the coming salvation and redemption (Revelation 19:11-22:5). As the first three sets of seven culminated in the elaborate description of the fall of Babylon, this set of seven ends in a description of the new Jerusalem, the goal of all creation. We would be mistaken to take John’s description of the new Jerusalem literally. What we have is an attempt to describe the indescribable, to describe the heavenly in earthly language in much the same way as in chapter 4 and 5 where the heavenly throne room is described. To do this, John mostly utilises language and symbols from the Old Testament. We should be aware from start to finish that the description is not intent on satisfying our curiosity but on providing us with a goal to live towards in place of the values and priorities offered by a world gone wrong. What we encounter here is nothing less than God’s will for the world, God’s preferred future. Implicit in this description is an invitation to join God in a journey towards this bright new world by our choices, words and actions.
Notes on the passage
21:9 It is interesting that the afterlife is described as life in a city and not a return to the garden of Eden. In Greek mythology we find the Elysian fields as a beautiful meadow. In Native American lore it is cast as the happy hunting fields, while Eastern philosophy speaks of Nirvana – a kind of dream garden. The way the New Jerusalem is presented sets it in opposition to Babylon (Rome) and casts it as the alternative dwelling place. It also presents God’s goal for his people as a community and not merely ‘the good place’ for individual Christians to be happy in. The walls and gates are named after representatives of God’s people and we find many series of 12 – alluding to the 12 disciples and the 12 tribes of the Old Testament.
The fact that the new Jerusalem descends from heaven should alert us to two things: It is not merely the product of human ingenuity and labour, but a gift from heaven to be gladly received. The second thing to take note of is that it descends from heaven and settles down on earth. It is a heavenly reality that is to be discovered and entered on earth. Earthly existence is not written off as worthless but brought to its fulfilment.
21: 11 The whole city shines with the radiance of jasper – the gemstone associated with the glory of God in the Old Testament. The most important thing to be said about the city is that it is drenched in the presence of God. Even the wall around the city (verse 18) is made of jasper. This quality of the city is the source of all that is good about it.
21: 13 The wall around the city has gates on all sides to make it accessible to all peoples and all nations.
21: 15-16 The city is in the shape of a cube – a giant replica of the holiest of holies in the temple, but open to all nations.
21: 19-20 The gemstones that adorn the foundation of the city are the gemstones in the breastplate of the high priest – the person that encountered God in special ways. We are all invited to find a home in a place where this is an everyday occurrence.
21:21 The gates are made of giant pearls. Pearls were regarded at the time to be as precious as the most precious gemstones. The streets of gold resonate ironically with the tears shed by the businessmen in the description of the fall of Babylon. In Revelation 18:12-13 the list of losses the businessmen bewail starts with gold and silver and (almost as an afterthought) ends with human beings – the exact opposite of the values of God. In Babylon gold is revered and people are downtrodden. In the new Jerusalem people are treasured and gold is walked on!
21:22 There is no temple in the city, since the whole city is now a kind of temple where God dwells with his people.
21:23 There is no sun or moon since the shekinah (the glorious radiance of God’s face) lights up the whole city. The risen Christ participates in emanating this glorious light.
21:25 The gates are always open to be accessible to all people. The only persons that are excluded are the sinners (chapter 21:27), but they have excluded themselves. The book of life is referred to six times in Revelation – in Revelation 3:5, 13:8, 17:8, 20:12, 20:15, and 21:27. It does not contain a list of all our good deeds and sins. All that is written in it is our names, entered by the grace of God.
22:1-2 The river with the water of life is a symbol of the life God grants that flows through the city and animates everything in it. The source of this river is the throne of God and the Lamb. It is an allusion to the river in the river in the garden of Eden (Genesis 2:10) and the lifegiving river in Ezekiel 37:1-12. Both these rivers find their fulfilment in the river in the new Jerusalem.
The tree of life reminds of the tree in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:32) and the fruit trees on both banks of Ezekiel’s river (Ezekiel 37:12). In Revelation 2:7 the image of the tree of life is used to draw the attention of the church in Ephesus to the consummation.
Points to ponder and discussion questions
- The fact that the new Jerusalem is depicted as descending from heaven as a gift from God means that heaven is not an escape from this world, but a healing of this world. It is also not something to be deferred until after death, but something that is already in motion. What could be some practical implications of this when we take account of the various elements of the description of the city?
- There are so many elements in John’s description of the city that it is difficult to pay attention to them all. Which element or elements struck you most? Why is it so meaningful for you?
- The holy of holies was a place where only one priest could enter on one specific day of the year. There is even the folk tale that a rope was fastened around his ankle so that he could be pulled out if something happened to him inside without anyone else needing to enter. What does it do to you to imagine the city as a giant replica of the holy of holies where you will be allowed to enter freely and to settle down in?
- As we discovered in the study, the value system of Babylon is one that places gold and silver at the head of the list and people at the end, while the value system of the new Jerusalem is the exact opposite. What would that mean in our time and context to start living towards this value system and to discard that of Babylon?
- What difference does it make in our time of international crisis to believe that, despite all the bad news, the new Jerusalem is indeed descending?
Meditation: Study 6
Revelation 21:2, 9-22:5
John’s intention with these last two chapters is to give us a picture of the future to which God is steering the world that is alluring – so alluring that it would draw us into a way of living that is already in harmony with the way things will one day fully be. We are to be spurred into action by our desire for this wonderful world that we know is already on its way.
Unfortunately, John’s message has been turned into what has been described cynically as “a pie in the sky when you die.” This is true if it is merely appropriated as something that only has to do with life after death. But we are not to wait passively to escape the awful reality of this world to enter the world that God has prepared for us only after death. This is at odds with the message of John’s vision.
John tells us that the new Jerusalem is descending from heaven. It is not depicted as a totally different world, but as our present world set right. And we certainly do not have to wait for some of that – even a great deal of that – to take shape. God will one day take away all that scars and spoils his creation (yes, including viruses) and he will heal all that is broken. All our physical needs will be taken care of. That is depicted by the image of the stream and the fruit trees bearing fruit twelve times a year. All our social needs will be met, for the new Jerusalem (God’s kingdom) is a city – a community where all are welcome. And, best of all, it is a city without a church. No church is necessary, since God will be there with us, enveloping us in his light and warmth like the sun. Even when things seem to head in the direction of a totally dystopian future, we are given the assurance that this picture of perfect peace is the way history will resolve.
But John is not satisfied to have us know that we will enter heaven at the end of our lives. No, why wait? We can taste some of it already, for it is already taking shape in the lives of Christians and, through their service, in the world. When we live in accordance with the values of the new Jerusalem (that are the complete opposite of the values of Babilon) we become a force of change in our world.
This knowledge turns John’s vision into an incentive for Christian action in a troubled world instead of it being merely something to cling to while we withdraw from the world into our Christian enclaves. We are to turn from the values and lifestyle of Babylon, but without losing our place in this world. Babylon is doomed to perish. The kingdom of God is on the rise (or should we say it is descending from heaven) and we have the great privilege to participate in this by all the seemingly trivial things we do every day. Anything done with the promised end in sight is participation in the coming of God’s kingdom.
So, we are included in the advent of the new Jerusalem. But there is another side to it that we we should always keep in mind: It comes from God, as a gift! It is not the kind of kingdom that we could ever dream of building. Yes, it is not the tower of Babel that we build to reach heaven, but the complete opposite: a gift God reaches down to present us. Yet, we do not receive it passively. We serve God by working towards his goal for this world and the next, but we do this with the sure and joyous knowledge that all will end well. The outcome is assured, for it is in God’s hands!
The Russian nuclear physicist, dissident, Nobel laureate, and activist for disarmament, peace and human rights, Andrei Sakharov was once asked how he and others of his group of dissidents managed to hold their course in the years of Soviet repression, he made a startling statement. He said, “We pretended that we were in a free country and simply started to live accordingly.” Let us as God’s agents in this world do something similar by “pretending” that we can see the new Jerusalem descending from heaven and living our lives in all their facets according to our sure and glorious future. The world will be forever changed. John Calvin said that one of the most important Christian practices is meditating on heaven. That, he said, will give us joy here on earth! And this joy will become our driving force for Christian living.
Wednesday 13th May 2020
Study 5: Revelation 18. The fall of great Babylon
Revelation 17 and 18 are extensions of Revelation 16:17-21, where the fall of Rome and the great cities of the Roman empire are described. Revelation 17 is an extended announcement of the fall of Babylon (a very transparent cypher for Rome), while Revelation 18 describes the fall of the city as if it is something occurring offstage, that we can follow by listening to the comments of the actors on stage – the kings, businessmen and sailors. The fall of the great and seemingly indestructible Rome (te so-called ‘Eternal City’) was meant to have a double impact on John’s audience: In the first place it was the removal of a threat. The Roman empire was gradually becoming a dangerous and inhospitable place in which to be a Christian. In the second place it cast Rome as an unstable and transitory power on which to base your trust and towards which to orient your life. This prepares the way for the New Jerusalem, announced and described in the last two chapters of Revelation, to be embraced as the stable and proper focus towards which to orient your life – the Eternal City in the true sense of the word.
Notes on the passage
Verse 3: The portrayal of Babylon (Rome) as a harlot is not in the first place a reference to sexual practices in the city but takes up the Old Testament usage of referring to idolatry in these terms. Rome has practiced idolatry by worshiping false gods and by setting up the emperor as a god and has seduced other nations to join them in this.
Verse 4: John’s call to come out of Babylon was not a call for Christians to literally flee the city, but a call to emigrate from it spiritually – to let go of her values and mores and of their reliance on her goodwill and protection. This should be done since all of it falls under God’s judgment.
Verses 5-8: These verses sound vengeful and harsh to our modern ears but should be read against the background of the judicial practices of the time. There was an important principle of law that was in force in the courts of the time, namely lex talionis. This determined that punishment should be meted out in accordance with the seriousness of the crime. The harshness of this passage means to reveal how serious Rome’s misdeeds were in the eyes of God. The call to “repay her double for her deeds” (verse 6) should not be taken literally but was a figure of speech at the time to express that she should carry the full burden of her punishment with no mitigation possible.
Verses 11-17: Rome is not judged for being rich, but for her lust for riches, as it is succinctly expressed in verse 14. It is striking that the merchants (who had fallen under the spell of Rome in her lust after riches) lament the loss of possessions (naming slaves as possessions too) and only mention the loss of human lives right at the end!
Verse 20: The call to rejoice here should not be viewed as a call to take delight in the misery and demise of the people of Rome. It is in fact a call to celebrate their deliverance from her rule now, while she is still superficially in control.
Verse 21-23: It is telling that John’s vision does not merely demonise Rome but ends on a note of sadness for all the good things that will also come to an end with the demise of Rome.
Points to ponder and discussion questions
- The call to flee Babylon has tremendous implications for modern-day Christians. Which elements of our society would have been in the list of imprecations that the voice from heaven would have mentioned if we heard it today, speaking of our society?
- It is plain to see that the aspects of Roman life the kings (verse 10), the businessmen (verses 11-13 and 17) and by the sailors (verses 18-19) regret losing are very different from those the voice from heaven laments losing (verses 22-23). This gives us a clue to the values of heaven. If you were to make a list of the false values of our day what would you put on the list? If you were to make a list of things that are in accordance with what is really important for Christians, what would you put on this list?
- Not only does the voice from heaven tell Christians to flee spiritually from Babylon, but it does not encourage them to undermine or overthrow the city. Does this mean that heaven finds it in order for the city to carry on as it does, or does the person behind the voice have something else in mind?
Click here for Meditation
A (very) short digression on predestination
Keeping a written piece on predestination (the much-maligned element of our Reformed heritage) short and simple is best done in story form. So here it is:
The father of a good friend of mine, Martin, got the job as the principal at a high school in a country town. His wife to be, Elsa, lived in this town with her family. One day Elsa walked by while her mother was reading their local town newspaper. Her mother said to her, “Look, here is a photograph of your new principal and his family.” Elsa took a good long look at the photograph in the newspaper and then pointed to Martin and said, “I am going to marry him one day.”
Within months of his arrival Martin started to take notice of this striking girl in his class and it was not long before he started dating her. Elsa’s older sister. The relationship did not last long but led to Martin noticing Elsa. One day after school he asked her if she would like to take a walk with him. Their walk led them to a dam in a public open space in town and they sat down on a bench under a willow tree on the grassy bank. There Martin gathered his courage and asked Elsa if she would go steady with him. Her response was to start laughing which, naturally, totally threw him. And so, she told him about the photograph in the newspaper. They were high school sweethearts, got engaged during their student years and are now a happily married retired couple.
Predestination is something like that. When we become aware of the wonders of God’s grace, of his person, and discover our deep attraction to all things that have to do with him, we want in. It might be at a certain time, it might be a subconscious shift into the discovery of our need for God, but we arrive at a place where we stand before him an, in some fashion, ask him if he would accept us as his children. And then God laughs and tells us something like the truth Paul expresses in Ephesians 1:3-5. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will…” In a word, God tells us that long before we could imagine being his beloved children and turned towards him, he had already pointed us out as his beloved. This stress on God’s prevenient grace has been a mark of Reformed faith from its inception. We have a beloved hymn in the Dutch Reformed Church that translates as, “Before I could choose, could ask, you had already carried the burden of my guilt.” The faith that you are a beloved child of God is not an accomplishment, but the result of a gracious gift.
We should end right there, but unfortunately some Christians have tried to extend the logic in a very mechanical fashion: If God had chosen some of us before the foundation of the world, then he must haver rejected some of us before the foundation of the world. And, equally mechanically: If our faith is caused by God’s election of some, then a lack of faith is caused by God’s rejection of others. From this logic one could argue that we are the objects of blind destiny. Nothing we can do can alter our destiny. If we are fortunate enough to be among the elect, no amount of protest will prevent us from coming to faith. If we are unfortunate enough to be among the rejected, no amount of effort will produce faith.
All of this might look like sound logic but would be completely at odds with so much of the Bible that it is obviously unacceptable. Yet these last conclusions lent themselves to strident criticism of the Reformed faith. The logic breaks down when we take full account of God’s universal love for all of his creatures. In John 3:16 we read, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” God’s love is directed at all of us, not only to some of us. In John 12:32 Jesus speaks of his intention in allowing himself to be crucified: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
If God’s love, then, extends to every one of us, why are there some who reject this and others who do not. The answer is simple: We do not know. It is a mystery. God offers his grace to all and rejects none out of hand. Yet many refuse God’s grace.
This does not mean that we should refrain from defining ourselves by our election. The point of being told of this is to elicit the same response that it did in Martin when Elsa told him what she had done. While we might sometimes be doubtful if we are deserving of God’s love, God always assures us that his love for us predated our love for him. This also leads us to great humility concerning our faith; it is not something we can pride ourselves on as an achievement, but a stunned response to God’s love. This is the reason why it predestination was so important for our Reformed forbears and why we should not dissociate ourselves from it.
Wednesday 6th May 2020
Study 4: Revelation 6:1-16. Christian living in an inhospitable world
Revelation 6 presents us with seven distressing scenes initiated by the opening of the seven seals on the scroll mentioned in the previous chapter. The opening of the seventh seal is only described in chapter 8 after a scene of God’s grace to soften the harshness descriptions of the world’s suffering.
Notes on the passage
The first four seals let loose the four horsemen of the apocalypse, representing threats and calamities that contrasted with the arrogant claims of the Roman empire to have brought about universal peace and prosperity.
Verse 2: The rider on the white horse calls forth the image of the feared Parthian cavalry from the east who rode on white horses and spread terror with their bows.
The Greek word that is translated with “given” in this verse and verse 8 and with “permitted” in verse 4 prevents us from understanding God as the author of the calamities that are described in this chapter. God allows it to be part of the journey towards the full unfolding of his plan for the world, but we can find no support for believing that he causes it.
Verse 4: The rider on the red horse is a cypher for war breaking out – something that always seemed possible despite Roman claims of stability.
Verse 5: The rider on the black horse symbolises an outbreak of famine during which luxuries are abundant but staple foods are eight to sixteen times their normal price. In these conditions the poor suffer while the rich carry on as before.
Verse 8: The pale green horse (a deathly pallor) signifies all manner of things that lead to death: violence, sickness, famine, wild animals.
Verse 9-11: The depiction of the followers of Christ lying in the blood gully at the foot of the sacrificial altar is a reference to bloody persecution that had just started but extends to any shape of persecution or marginalisation undergone for their faith. By situating them beneath the altar, their deaths are portrayed as sacrificial, like that of Christ and not meaningless loss of life.
The cry “how long!” takes up one of the most frequent phrases of lament in the Psalms. It is a fascinating lament, since it is anchored in the belief that the present troubles are temporary, and that God knows the answer. It is therefore simultaneously strikingly honest about their suffering, yet unflinchingly hopeful. Compare this with the desperate and hopeless call of the unbelievers in verses 16 to 17!
Verse 6-17: The disasters described by John in these verses reminded his audience of natural disasters of that time. A good example was the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 that darkened the sun and gave the moon a red pallor. John describes a worldwide series of disasters in terms that are familiar to them and gives the impression of all of creation shuddering in anticipation of the coming judgment.
Points to ponder and discussion questions
- The calamities described with the opening of the first 4 seals seems like God’s judgment but are in fact familiar troubles of the time. They seem to be mentioned to unmask the insufficiency and fragility of the vaunted advantages of the pax Romana – peace, prosperity, healthy living conditions, etc. How could one look at our times with a similar frame of reference?
- Christians are not spared the pain and sorrow of a broken world. In fact, their faith can even be the source additional troubles for them. Yet there is a tremendous difference between the way they respond to the calamities and the way people with no faith respond to them. What would be different if we prayed “how long” (verse 10) instead of “who is able to stand?” (verse 17)?
- How could the troubles we encounter in the world speak to people without faith to open them up to the possibility of faith?
- How is God present in a world where so much suffering is possible? Does suffering not make belief in God irrational?
Meditation: Study 4 – Revelation 6
For the first Christians to whom Revelation was read during worship chapter 6 must have come as a surprise – as indeed it does for us modern-day Christians. After the glory of the throne room of God and the wonderful news that God’s plan for the world can be set into motion, we see the Lamb opening the scroll by breaking the seven seals. I would have expected immediately to see the new Jerusalem descending on earth; tears dried up, sickness disappearing, conflict ended, and the kingdom of God appearing in full splendour. What we get instead is misery and woe. This is not restricted to this chapter. We find so much of it all the way to chapter 19 that it makes for some hard reading.
And yet, there is a wonderful assurance buried in these passages. (I know I need to hear it, and more so in the time of crisis we are in at present!) We are assured here that God has not lost control of the situation. Most of all, we are assured that all will end well, no matter how badly it seems to be going at present.
We do not need to decipher all the calamities presented in the chapter, as the first Christians did. If John had written to us in the first instance, I can imagine he would have described the threat of the Covid 19 virus and all its devastating aspects and he would have done this with fearsome images that would have been easily within our reach to decipher. The message of the chapter is found in the different responses to the crises that we find from the Christians martyrs (verse 11)and the unbelievers (verses 16 and 17).
The unbelievers’ cries are without hope. They assume that all is lost and that no-one can save them. All that they had previously placed their trust upon has failed and the best they can think of is to hide away. The Christian martyrs, on the other hand, do not merely put a happy face on things. They are suffering – even more than the unbelievers are. So, they turn to God, which is already more than the unbelievers can do. And when they turn to God, they are open and truthful about their suffering; they lament their miserable condition. Yet, their lament is hopeful. Praying, “How long will it be…” assumes that there will be an end to their suffering and, more than that, that God will determine when this will be. Yes, it does not claim to understand why God allows their suffering and why God does not transport them immediately to the blissful outcome anticipated in Revelation 21. There are times when we simply make no sense of the mess the world is in. Yet, we can pray, “How long will it be…?” in the full confidence that this cannot, will not last for ever.
I have just finished reading the autobiography of Tomas Halik, a Czech priest and professor in sociology and philosophy at Charles University in Prague. One of his chapters is devoted to musing on a near death experience he had. In this chapter he applies a very striking metaphor to his experience: Jesus, asleep in the stern of the boat during the storm on the Lake of Galilee. Jesus not waking up with a fright at the waves thundering and washing over the boat and the wind furiously howling through the ripped sails. Indeed, he asks them, “Why are you afraid?” before stilling the wind and the waves by a simple command. But Halik makes the striking observation: “Jesus preaches by means of his sleep. It even occurs to me that his sleep in the scene is a profounder revelation of his mission than the subsequent miracle, which he was forced to perform because of the disciples lack of faith.”
His point is very simple: Jesus is present in the midst of the storm. He is present when we threaten to lose all hope. And Jesus is not worried, because the outcome is assured. God’s great plan for us all is heading for completion and nothing can prevent this from happening. In that assurance we can also calm down and find strength in the image of the Lamb unrolling the scroll. Yes, there are times when we also cry out, “How long, Lord?” But is always hopeful lament. We need never lose sight of the glorious end towards which our joint history is heading.
Wednesday 29th April 2020
Study 3: Revelation 5:1-14. God’s initiative unveiled
Revelation 4 describes the place from which God’s decisive action in the world emanates. In Revelation 5 the crucial initiative itself is described: Jesus, the Lamb that was slain, sets God’s plan for the world in action. It is not a blueprint by which God micromanages the leadup to the final consummation. It is a plan by which God is present in the unfolding of world history in a way that makes it possible for us already to focus on the new Jerusalem that is descending to earth (Revelation 21) with the joyous certainty that we will one day experience it in all its glory.
Notes on the passage
Verse 1: The scroll, as will become evident, is God’s plan for the world, sealed with seven seals. Seven was a symbolic number signifying completeness. The scroll cannot be opened lightly, but only by one judged worthy. Seals were also indicative of the author of a document – in this case God self. This is not merely some human strategy, but expresses God’s preferred plan for the world, about to be set in motion.
Verse 5: “The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” is Messianic language taken from the Old Testament’s descriptions of the Messiah as a descendant of David.
Verse 6: The image of the “Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” when a Lion had been announced presents us with a powerful redefinition of winning. The victory had not been won by using force, but by Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross. (verse 9) Yet it is the greatest victory in history and makes him worthy to break the seals to set God’s plan in motion!
The seven horns and seven eyes symbolise immense strength (the horns) and fullness of insight (the eyes). The seven spirits are the agents of God’s initiatives in the world, mentioned in Revelation 4.
Verse 8: The golden bowls filled with incense is an image from the temple’s incense offering, said to release a smell pleasing to God. Depicting the prayers of believers in troubled times as incense offerings draws our prayers into the action of the coming of God’s kingdom without in any way diminishing the decisive role of the risen Lord.
Verse 10: We should note that the designation of the harassed and marginalised Christians as kings and priests that reign on earth would have been quite a shock for the persons to whom John’s great composition was read. Their numbers were very small and their existence very tenuous at the time. To hear themselves included in the imposing hymn sung in the throne room would have had a tremendous impact.
Points to ponder and discussion questions
- How could we relate John weeping in verse 4 when he hears that God’s plan cannot be put in action with the response of so many people to our present situation during the coronavirus pandemic? What difference does the knowledge that Jesus has been found worthy to open the seals and set God’s plan for deliverance in action make for you?
- The announcement of Jesus as the Lion is not erased by his appearance as a Lamb that was slaughtered. Nor does Jesus revert to be a heavenly being with no signs of weakness. Jesus is both a powerful being and one who freely relinquishes power. What we have here is a dramatic redefinition of real power. How does that influence the way we commit to be his agents in our broken world?
- When we read verse 10 as a description of ourselves as a faith community in the Canongate, without losing sight of the depiction of Jesus as the Lion/slaughtered Lamb, what does it say for our role in Edinburgh and Scotland? What does it imply for your personal role in your family and in society?
- The great hymn sung by the massive heavenly choir in verses 11 to 13 leaves us in no doubt to the great goal of history: It is concerned with the honour and glory of God. Yet popular depictions of heaven have a very different focus, being mostly concerned with human beings finding personal fulfilment. How should one resolve this tension, if at all?
Meditation: Study 3 – Revelation 5
We are in the throne room of God – the centre from which the universe is governed. From this place, irresistibly, the future is given shape.
Three shifts in the scene caught my attention anew. The first is the shift from tears to joy. In verse 4 John relates how he wept bitterly at the news that no-one could be found who is worthy to set in motion God’s plan of action, sealed in the scroll by seven seals in his right hand. Let’s use our imaginations for the impact of this scene to become clear. Imagine you dream that you are transported to the throne-room of God and you hear him say, “I have a wonderful destination for all of creation and a plan that will take us there. Find me a person worthy to put this into action.” Next you see the angels gathering a glittering cast of wonderful spiritual, scientific, political, economical and other leaders: Abraham, Moses, David, Paul, Peter, John, and many able and trustworthy leaders from the modern era. But none of them are counted worthy. God’s wonderful plan cannot be put into action. What emotions will that evoke.
But John’s vision does not end there. Then comes the announcement by one of the elders that the Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered and is about to open the seven seals. From that point onwards, the scene describes the mounting joy at the prospect of God’s plan for the world being implemented. This begs the question: Are we part of the joyful expectancy in the throne room, or is our outlook on the future dark and gloomy? To what extent does our knowledge of the risen Lord’s active presence in the world, of the cross as a victory determine your outlook on the future?
The second shift in the narrative is in the description of the Risen Lord. John hears the announcement of the Lion of the tribe of Judah, but he sees a slaughtered lamb. He was imagining a fearsome warrior wielding power, but instead he finds a lamb, with the marks of the slaughterer’s knife on its throat. He was imagining the victory as a victory won by force. Instead he discovers that the victory that determines the future is a victory won by sacrifice. Imagine what this meant for John’s congregations of persecuted Christians. Their martyrdom is a way of joining Christ in changing the world decisively and finally. Their view of the means by which to steer the world towards God’s preferred future totally transformed. Their greatest contribution to the future would not be by gaining power over others, but by love and sacrificial service.
The third shift in the narrative is the escalation of praise. The twenty-four elders and the four living creatures start the new song in praise of the Lamb (verse 8). In verse 11 they are joined by “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” of angels, singing with full voice. The announcement of the Lamb that was slaughtered taking the scroll from God’s right hand to open it and set God’s plan in motion was the greatest event in the existence of the universe and nothing less than this full-blooded anthem would serve to mark the occasion. With this as the overpowering reality concerning the future of our world, why should we be afraid of anything?!
Legend has it that one of the old Irish saints, Saint Brendan, always had a piece of string around his neck, with two balls of wax fixed to the ends. Whenever he heard music, he would insert the balls of wax in his ears and only remove them once the musicmaking had stopped. The reason for this, he explained, was that he had heard the angel choirs sing at his conversion and wanted to keep the memory alive as vividly as possible. None of us, to my knowledge, has had a similar experience, but John provides us with the next best thing. He sparks our imaginations to life and provides a verbal picture that has the potential of drowning out any pessimism about the future, even when earthly events stretch our faith to its limits. So, when circumstances threaten to overcome you, recall this scene to your mind’s eye.
Wednesday 22 April 2020
Study 2: Revelation 4:1 – 11. The centre of the universe
Revelation 4 draws back the veil from the entrance to the throne room of God, the centre of the universe where everything in creation is determined. – the real centre of power in contrast to the throne room of Ceasar. The throne is not vacant. The universe is not chaotic, nor is it ruled by blind chance.
The scene only concludes at the end of chapter 5, when the Lamb that was slain sets God’s plan of redemption in motion. Revelation 4 and 5 is the epicentre of the whole book from which all that follows flows. Mark that this scene does not depict a dualism – a complete separation of heaven and earth – but is filled with representatives of all living beings on earth and is also intimately concerned with all that transpires on earth.
It is interesting to note that other apocalyptic writings of the time gave detailed descriptions of the journey to the throne of God. Revelation, though, is not sensationalism, but reserves all attention for the description of the throne room.
Notes on the passage
Verse 1: The open door takes up the image in chapter 3 verse 20. In chapter 3 Christ is knocking at the door of the church in Laodicea, the church that has become lukewarm. The door might be closed out of fear for persecution or it might be closed because they have lost the ability to hear Christ reaching out to them. In the process they lose the presence of Christ when they gather for worship. In chapter 4 verse 1 a door opens and reveals the scene of heavenly worship that the Laodicean church was invited to join.
Verse 3: Jasper and cornelian are gemstones associated with the presence of God.
The rainbow is an allusion to the rainbow that is a sign of God’s promise to himself after the flood in the Noah-narrative to never cause such devastation again. Note that the rainbow is around the throne of God. This means that all that God does is done with the rainbow, the magnificent sign of God’s grace-filled intent, in plain sight.
Verse 4: The 24 elders are symbolic of the 12 tribal heads (representatives of the faithful in Old Testament times) and the 12 apostles (representatives of the faithful in the new dispensation). They reign with God on thrones, with crowns on their heads. Notice that they take their crowns off when the great worship scene commences in verse 10.
Verse 5: The seven flaming torches/spirits are well-known images in Jewish lore, that depicts God as ruling by having seven spirits do his bidding on earth. God is not a passive ruler biding his time while things go badly wrong in his kingdom, but a king who has his seven regents always at the ready to do his will.
Verse 6: The sea of glass/like crystal is a sign of the peace that descends when God is present. The sea was viewed as the place where the powers of chaos have been driven in Near Eastern mythology.
Verse 7: The four living creatures represent all living things on earth. The creature like a lion represents all wild animals, the creature like an ox represents all tame creatures, the creature with a human face represents all human beings, and the creature like an eagle represents all birds.
Verses 8-11: The mighty scene of worship described here continues “day and night without ceasing”. This destroys the notion that worship, and ordinary living can ever be separated. The scene described here is an unveiled description of the essence of all that exists. Our reason for being here and the whole point of our existence is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
Points to ponder and discussion questions
- Which of the metaphors in this passage struck you most?
- What insight into living our daily lives are presented by fact that we are doubly represented in the passage – as believers and as human beings?
- What can we infer from the fact that all living creatures are gathered up to worship God and not only human beings?
- How does this image impact the way we think about the present world-wide crisis?
Meditation: Study 2 – Revelation 4
In old Jewish mythology there are nine orders of angels. The cherubs, who have perfect knowledge of God, are the second highest in rank. The seraphs are the highest in rank, since they have perfect love of God. It is the seraphs that sing out “Holy, holy, holy!” before the throne in Isiah’s vision. According to the Jewish myth they are born from under God’s throne and, as they rise and see God, they sing the firsts “Holy!” and their love for God wells up so intensely that they burst into flames and are consumed totally. They are then born from under the throne for a second time, sing the second “Holy!”, and are again consumed by flames. Only by being born for a third time can they rise to sing the third “Holy!”.
The myth does not aim to describe technically what happens in the throneroom of God, but to strike us with wonder and awe. Much the same is what John’s description aims at. We need not understand all the details that fill this chapter from Revelation. The whole should bring us to our knees in awe. This, John knows, is lifechanging. This will enable us to be hopeful as Christians in a hostile and dangerous world. We have little trouble in claiming that God is in control. In times of tranquillity we would glibly answer this claim with, “Of course that is true.” But when things get out of hand doubt tends to creep in. Yes, we could suppress our fears for some time, but it is there, lurking in the background. It is only when we can conceive of the majestic God on his throne as John depicts the scene that we are able to dispel our doubts. Then we join the 24 elders in casting off our crowns before the throne of God and joining the heavenly choir in praising the glory of God.
John has a very practical concern here. He is not merely attempting to satisfy our curiosity about what it looks like in the throne room of God. No, he knows that the active involvement of God in our world sometimes loses its sense of being real for us. Other powers, earthly powers seem more real. When this happens, we may profess our trust in God, but it becomes very difficult to allow this to impact our lives in any real way. Ah, but after being in awe of the majesty and splendour of our God, all other powers fade in the impression they make on is – as they should! Then we can live in accordance with the standards of the new Jerusalem that is already descending on earth. Then the temptation to allow the powers of this world more than their due can be resisted.
There are many wonderful symbols in John’s vision, but you don’t need to understand all of them. If the scene he describes brings you to worship, that is enough. Yet, focusing on some of the details enriches your experience of the vision. My personal favourite is the rainbow around the throne. It is an allusion to the rainbow God hangs in the sky after the flood, when He promises himself to never allow his wrath to push him this far again. It is a sign of God’s immense grace. And to know that he looks at me, always through this rainbow! And to know that he tends to the world, always through this rainbow! This part of the picture helps me deal with our current fragility in a very practical way.
Another detail in the vision strikes me in this time: the four creatures before the throne that act as representative of all living creatures on earth. All of his creatures matter to God and are represented in the throne room. Creation matters to God. I am struck every time when I see another videoclip or photograph that shows creation reviving itself while human beings are largely in lockdown: blue skies in Bombay where there was air pollution, clear water running in Venice’s canals and little fish, dolphins and manatees venturing into places they previously avoided… I could go on and on. God loves this world an all that is in it. We can find peace in this knowledge.
Revelation 5 (next week’s study) takes this one step further: God has a plan for our world, and we will witness this plan being set into motion.
Wednesday April 15th 2020
Revelation – An Introduction
What Revelation is not
Revelation is not (in the words of GK Chesterton) a guide to “the furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell.” Neither is it a depiction of the final short span of time before the final trumpet blows. In addition, it is not a description of historical epochs that lead up to the consummation, described to help us predict the end of history. There have been many attempts in the past to cast Revelation in one of these moulds. A proper study of the book, though, shows up all these possible interpretations as fanciful – sometimes pushed to the point of the bizarre and dangerous. To quote Chesterton again: “And though St. John saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.”
What Revelation is
Revelation is a pastoral letter to churches in Asia in the first century when the persecution and social marginalization of Christians started to make itself felt. This was also a time fraught with crisis in the Roman empire: wars, famines, earthquakes, the eruption of Vesuvius in 79. All these phenomena cast a dark pall over Christians and set them to wondering what it meant to claim God as sovereign and Jesus as his anointed king.
Revelation is an interpretation of history – the history of the world of his time – but done in such a way that we can learn from it to interpret the history of our own time. The present, in John’s narrative, is not merely influenced by the past, but is shaped by the future. History is heading somewhere hopeful, and we already experience some of it amid our earthly travails. Knowing where we are heading affects how we act in the present.
Revelation is aimed at the imagination and the ear. Revelation is a pictorial narrative. It is filled with ‘special effects’ that intend to penetrate the hopelessness and fear of its audience. This does not make it anti-intellectual, but it should first be read in accordance with its primary mode of communication before our analytical faculties kick in.
Revelation is apocalyptic literature – a well-known genre of the time. God is in the driving seat of the curve of history and will bring everything to a conclusion, a final goal. Therefore, our existence is not meaningless. No distressing state of affairs is ever final. God acts in history, though not in a deterministic fashion that eliminates human causality or that can ascribe the evils of this world to God. Apocalyptic literature surfaces in times when evil and suffering in this world is experienced as so pervasive that only God’s intervention can turn the tide. No human effort seems able to effectively eradicate the present evil. Apocalyptic literature operates from the presupposition that God’s intervention is certain and that the present crisis will not endure. Yet Apocalyptic literature is not an attempt to make predictions and to set time scales. It is not concerned with the question, “When will the end come?” but with the question, “What is the meaning of our suffering?”
Revelation is hard to understand for modern Christians but was immediately accessible for its first audience. Apocalyptic literature uses symbolic, mythologic language that is alien to us. In addition, we are not as steeped in Old Testament terminology and passages as the first Christians were. (There are approximately 500 allusions to texts from the Old Testament (in a book with only 404 verses!), though there are no fully quoted passages.)
Revelation is worth the effort. It contains a powerful message for Christians in all ages, and especially for Christians in times as troubled as our own.
The structure and message of the book of Revelation
The book can be briefly summarized as follows: The risen Christ appears to John on the Island of Patmos and he is given messages to send to seven churches in Asia (the current Turkey). He is then caught up in the heavenly throne-room where he sees Christ open a sealed scroll. Each seal, as it is opened, offers us a graphic scene of a world in travail, with God at work backstage. The seventh seal, rather than being the end, opens into seven trumpets being blown to open seven scenes, after which we witness seven bowls with the wrath of God being poured out. The bowls climax with the destruction of Babylon (a thinly veiled allusion to Rome) and lead into a description of the final triumph of God as Christ returns to establish himself in the new Jerusalem as the capital of a redeemed creation.
One would do Revelation a great disservice to view either the sevenfold scenes opened by the breaking of the seals, the sounding of the trumpets or the tipping of the bowls of wrath as historic sequences that lay out stages of history that will play out in the order that they are presented. They are more akin to three boxes of photographs, each with an enlargement (the seventh in the three sequences) that receives more attention. They overlap and have no pretence of laying out some grand planned scheme. Yet, they are all open to the final, triumphant dawn of the new heaven and new earth. There are also a few breaks in the pattern where John already lets us in on a vision of the future victory over evil that is still veiled in the present troubled time.
Early Christians were guilty of two inadequate views of the consummation of history that have persisted to our day. Both have immense practical implications for Christian living. Some were so focused on the second coming of Christ that the present lost its value for them. This caused them to become otherworldly and reckless in naïve ways. They regarded the world as irredeemable and salvation as only possible via a final purge that would only be survived by Christians. Others paid almost exclusive attention to present concerns to such an extent that they became worldly and caught up in the belief that the future could only be an extension of the trajectory of the present. Revelation presents us with a corrective that combines concern for the present with a focus on the future in a way that honours the importance of our present life by aiming it in the direction God is already heading with creation.
The familiar pattern of apocalyptic literature is followed by starting with present troubles, portraying them as intensifying just before the end, and resolving into the ultimate victory of God and the end itself. According to this pattern things will first go worst before getting better.
The flow of the book presents these first Christian (and, by inference, us) with the great question: Will you orient your lives to the ‘Great city of Babylon’ (in all its earthly forms) that will be judged by God, or to the ‘Holy City’ that will be redeemed by God?
The six studies
Wednesday 15 April Study 1: Revelation 1:9-20. A vision of the risen Christ
Wednesday 22 April Study 2: Revelation 4:1 – 11. The centre of the universe
Wednesday 29 April Study 3: Revelation 5:1-14. God’s initiative unveiled
Wednesday 6 May Study 4: Revelation 6:1-16. Christian living in an inhospitable world
Wednesday 13 May Study 5: . Revelation 18.The fall of great Babylon
Wednesday 20 May Study 6: . Revelation 21:2, 9-22:5. The new Jerusalem descending
Study 1: Revelation 1:9-20. A vision of the risen Christ
Notes on the passage
John is writing to Christians that need encouragement. To do this he starts with a description of the risen Christ in a way that sets the tone for the rest of the book. The following aspects of the description is particularly noteworthy:
Verse 10: The risen Lord displays his concern for his church in travail by speaking to them through John. He takes initiative when John turns to him in prayer.
Verse 12-13: The risen Lord is to be found among the seven lampstands, symbols of the seven churches. He is not aloof or somewhere, far away in heaven.
Verse 13: The long robe is the attire of a priest, while the golden sash is that worn by a king.
Verse 14-16: Seven attributes of the risen Lord is noted – a sure allusion to the shape of a Jewish menorah, where the middle lamp is the most important of the seven. These attributes are paired like the lamps that make up a menorah: One with seven, two with six, three with 5 and, in the most important place, the fourth attribute. All these attributes resonate with depictions of God or of the Son of Man in the book of Daniel.
Attributes one and seven: Hair as white as snow, as white wool (1) and a face like the sun shining with full force (7) is God-language for Christ. We find the first as a description of God in Daniel 7:9 and the second as a description of God’s presence (see Daniel 10 and Ezekiel 43). Jewish lore spoke of the shekinah – a bright radiance that accompanied God’s presence.
Attributes two and six: The flaming eyes (2) and the double-edged sword (6) depicts the risen Lord as the one for whom nothing is hidden: He sees all and uncovers all. No wrong can be hidden from him.
Attributes three and five: The risen Lord’s power over all the earth is depicted by the image of feet like burnished bronze and his right hand holding the seven starts. The feet of bronze is and image taken from Daniel 2 where a statue with feet of clay depicts the kingdoms of this world. Unlike worldly powers, the risen Lord has feet of bronze that are not brittle like clay, but that also does not weaken with rust. The image of seven stars in Christ’s right hand (the hand with which he acts) is taken from the world of astrology, that was prevalent at the time. People believed that the seven stars (the ones they could see before the advent of telescopes) controlled our destiny. Here the risen Lord is seen as controlling the stars themselves!
The fourth attribute: A voice like the voice of many waters is a powerful image that combines the love and the power of the risen Lord. The sound of a thundering waterfall and the raging sea is the only sound in creation that can simultaneously sound like a gentle whisper and thunder.
Verse 10: The risen Lord displays his concern for his church in travail by speaking to them through John. He takes initiative when John turns to him in prayer.
Verse 17: The phrase “Do not be afraid…” was the usual greeting of the risen Christ when he appeared to the disciples before his ascension.
Verse 20: The seven stars are given a second meaning. They are the “angels” of the seven churches. This could either mean something like guardian angels that are especially concerned with the congregations. In apocalyptic literature we often find this way of depicting earthly phenomena as having extensions or representative forms in the heavenly realm. It could also refer to the seven human leaders of the congregations that God had provided. Either way, it points to the fact that God has not forgotten them and takes special care by having an emissary specially dedicated to take care of them.
Points to ponder and discussion questions
- The description of the risen Christ in verses 14-16 is not intended to merely describe what Jesus is like but conveys who Jesus is for the Christians in crisis. It is an intensely personal description, meant to elicit a response. When you consider your current state of mind, what response does this description of our Lord elicit from you?
- What impression does the description of the risen Lord among the lamps leave you with?
- Do you think there could be some significance in the depiction of the seven churches as lamps, considering the troubled times in the Roman empire? Does this say something about the significance of our own congregation for Edinburgh and Scotland?
- If you imagine the risen Lord as described here, how do you resonate with John’s response as described in verse 17? What would it have done to you to Hear Jesus’ words in response to John as we find them in verses 17 and 18?
- How does this passage speak to our current situation with the world-wide devastation wreaked by the coronavirus and the fears of economic depression in its wake?