Understanding Revelation Chapter Twelve

This post is a direct continuation of the previous posts, on Revelation chapters four and five.  For introductory comments on the general nature of Revelation and how to understand it, please see the post on chapter four.

Revelation 12

12A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. 5And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.

7 And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,
‘Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down,
who accuses them day and night before our God.
11 But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
12 Rejoice then, you heavens
and those who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
for the devil has come down to you
with great wrath,
because he knows that his time is short!’

13 So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. 16But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. 17Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.

Verse 1:  A woman clothed with the sun.  Although in more recent times often associated with the virgin Mary, John describes her as a “portent.”  The woman is a sign of a bigger reality than just a woman.  The most ancient and consistent interpretation is that she is in fact an image of the faithful church (this is consistent with the way we have been reading the text, as not a historical account, but an unveiling of what is real and relevant now).  However, the association can be rescued if we are willing to see Mary as a representative figure for the church; as long as we’re conscious of that deeper layer to the Marian association.

There is also an association with Israel (in the book of Revelation, the imagery consistently presents unity and continuity between Israel and the church).  Think of Joseph’s dream of sun, moon and stars bowing before him; here is a woman clothed with the sun, standing on the moon and crowned with the stars; she is all of Israel summed up in one figure.

Being clothed with the sun points to the hope of the resurrection.  The moon has had a wide variety of interpretations, hotly disputed.  There’s a connection with baptismal waters, since it is through those waters that the woman’s children are born.  (In this view, her child-bearing = baptism).  At the same time, the imagery also has cosmic dimensions; the entire physical universe, and especially the human part of it, is caught up in what is happening.

Verse 3:  The dragon represents the devil.  “Dragon” draws on Old Testament imagery of Leviathan, embodiment of chaos and evil.  That he is red shows the blood in which he is steeped.  He has seven heads, ten horns, seven diadems, which show us his authority, strength, wealth; he has these all in abundance.  In particular, the “Seven heads” show his wider influence; in the thought of the time, “head” stands for the source or origin of something; the dragon gives rise to other forces or personalities who are similarly evil.

Verse 4:  The stars being swept down from heaven are a way of describing those who are misled by heresy.

The dragon’s attempt to devour the child represents our ongoing struggle, temptation and suffering.  The dragon intimidates with the threat of death.  When we encounter the fear of death, we are tempted to back off, to compromise, to accommodate the dragon.  These threats are calculated to make s forget who truly holds our life, and so this threat and fear of death is one of the dynamics of the dragon, and we are here warned to see through it, and avoid getting caught up in it.

Verse 5:  Although on one level the male child is obviously Christ, on another level, the male child is not pointing us to Christ so much as to ourselves.  Remember that this text is unveiling what is deeper meaning in our lives now.  Yes, Christ came and was born and has ascended to heaven; but our lives follow in the same pattern.  Each of us is part of the body of Christ; we are born anew in the church, participate in Christ’s reign, and ultimately find our security in heaven.  (Take it as the product of a patriarchal era, but the maleness of the child is intended to convey strength and virtue).

The rod of iron harks back to Psalm 2, which in the midst of the uproar of the nations, promises a ruler with a rod of iron.  Points us to Christ’s messianic rule, in which we participate.

That the child is taken to God’s throne is a way of showing that the devil is not permitted to destroy those who have been born (again) in the church.  They are under God’s protection and kept safe and faithful to the end.

Verse 6:  The woman in the wilderness shows the experience of the church under persecution.  Yet she is nourished (and this is repeated in v14), an encouragement not to be troubled by the afflictions of this life.  This nourishment has often been later linked with Eucharist.

“1,260 days” – again a parallel to v14, “time, times and half a time.”  Obscure, but it seems to be a way of referring to the whole time of the church’s earthly existence in the current reality.  We are always going to be in the wilderness, and yet nourished.

Verse 7:  War in heaven.  The ultimate war.  The struggle between good and evil.  Between the people of God (under God’s protection), and the personalities/forces which would overcome and destroy them.  Over the last two weeks we’ve seen a vision of heaven which says that the surface struggles of this life are not ultimate reality.  This passage is pointing us to the deeper significance of those surface struggles.  This war in heaven is not somewhere removed from us, but played out in the conflict we see and hear and experience every day.

Michael is a problematic figure; he is described in Daniel as a prince, and a protector of the Jewish people, contending with other “princes.”  He gets a brief passing mention in Jude, where he is described as an archangel contending with the devil about the body of Moses.  Clearly he is in some way to be identified as a powerful figure doing God’s will.  Some have been embarrassed that here he seems to be prominent above Christ and have sought to identify him with either Christ or the Holy Spirit, but that thinking seems to be on shaky ground.

Verse 8:  The dragon is defeated by the cross of Christ.  Defeated.  Victory is a present reality.  Yes, we might be caught up in the mopping up operations, but the outcome is certain.  The dragon is defeated.

Verse 9:  “The ancient serpent,” referring back to the Genesis story of the fall.  How you understand Genesis, and how you make sense of this part of Revelation, will be linked.  A literal Genesis leaves you with a literal evil personality, here.  An allegorical Genesis leaves you with a personification of evil systems, forces and powers.  (Although I would encourage you to consider, that these perspectives are not mutually exclusive).  The Genesis account sets up ongoing enmity between the offspring of the woman, and the serpent, and here we see that enmity played out on a cosmic canvas.

“The deceiver” – deception is one of the dynamics of the dragon, and we are here warned to see through it, and avoid getting caught up in it.

Either way, the great dragon is thrown down.  The verb is literally “bounced.”  Michael bounced the dragon out of his position of power, authority, and wealth.  (I’m quite taken with that; I almost want to see an icon painted of Michael as heaven’s bouncer).

Verse 10:  “The accuser” – this tells us another one of the ways in which we experience the influence of the dragon.  The constant engendering of guilt is a part of this landscape of war.  The Greek word we translate “devil” has the meaning of a slanderer.  Slander, accusation, guilt, the burden of sin (rather than the liberation from it); these are also the dynamics of the dragon, and just like deception, we are here warned to see through them, and avoid getting caught up in them.

Verse 11:  “they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb” – the answer to all guilt and sin.  Because yes, we have sinned.  We are fallen, broken, guilty; but that is not the whole story.  Sin is also dealt with; it no longer defines or imprisons us.  The accusations of the dragon are met with the truth of our being washed and set free by the death of Jesus, by the loving self-giving of the one on the throne.

And, “by the word of their testimony.”  We match deceit with truth.  The truth of Christ is set in victory over against every deception.  Honesty, authenticity, integrity; these overcome the untruth which would otherwise ensnare us.

And, “they did not cling to life even in the face of death.”  We also match threat with the gospel.  Death is not the defining factor, the final word.  We know that even in death, we do not lose.

Verse 12:  “the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”  This is why the world is stuffed up, why there is evil and suffering.  Because even though it is defeated, the forces of evil are pissed off, and are making the most of the short window of time before they entirely disappear to make everyone else as miserable as possible.  The dragon is on a desperate rampage.  The suffering of the church in the world is not a sign of Satan’s victory; it is the backwash of his death throes.

His time being short is not about time as we experience it, but in the sense that his time of unchallenged control has been ended. Progressively, his influence in human life and history will diminish, until eventually it will be entirely eliminated.

Verse 14: “Time, times and half a time.”  Drawing on Daniel again.  Obscure, but it seems to be a way of referring to the whole time of the church’s earthly existence in the current reality.  We will always be caught up in the war, until the fulfillment of God’s purposes.

Verse 15: “Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood.”  We’ve already seen, as we’ve picked our way through the text, that the dragon pours out a flood of accusation and deceit and threats.  And we all know, in our own lives, something of what it is to feel guilty, to feel threatened, to be deceived.  This is the opposite of the living water which flows from the throne of God (later in Revelation).  It’s a chaotic, evil flood of death.

Verse 16:  “But the earth came to the help of the woman…”  Creation is not neutral in this battle.  It is on the side of the creator.  (An aside; I would suggest that we see this, for example, in a person’s natural psychological resilience; we are created with a certain inbuilt capacity to withstand fear, threat, guilt.  Not that we ever need external support in that, but we are not created to be unable to withstand some of the pressures of this war).

So there you have it.  I intend to leave Revelation here, for the time being.  But I’d love any comments or discussion from others, particularly on this very challenging text!

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Understanding Revelation Chapter Five

This post is a direct continuation of the previous post, on Revelation Chapter Four.  For introductory comments on the general nature of Revelation and how to understand it, please see that post.

Revelation 5

5Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; 2and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’ 3And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. 4And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. 5Then one of the elders said to me, ‘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.’

6 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. 7He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. 8When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9They sing a new song:
‘You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
10 you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth.’

11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12singing with full voice,
‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honour and glory and blessing!’
13Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,
‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honour and glory and might
for ever and ever!’
14And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshipped.

 

Verse 1:  “In the right hand of the one seated on the throne…” The right hand of God, drawing on texts in Exodus and the Psalms, is the hand of power and might, and of righteousness and salvation.  We know what the scroll is about, just by knowing whose right hand holds it.

The scroll is a symbolic way of showing the full account, the full plan for creation, for rectifying what is wrong and establishing God’s reign.  Therefore, it holds the meaning of all human history and endeavour, whether each part is to be judged and destroyed or incorporated into the new creation.  The way one commentator put it is that “inside the scroll are not just writings, but the pent-up powers and forces and energies that will shape the course of” creation “till the end of time.”

That the scroll is written on the inside and the back – unusual at the time – says something about the fullness, the magnitude, of what is written.  It suggests that what is written has significance both for material reality – what we see and hear and so forth – and spiritual reality, the deeper truth to which John’s vision attests.

Seven seals – again, seven is the number of completeness.  This scroll and its contents are utterly secure.

That the scroll is in the right hand of the one on the throne emphasizes again that the living God is in control.  And more than that, he has a plan, which is secure in his keeping.  The surface chaos of life is not the ultimate truth.

Verse 3:  “No one…was able to open the scroll or to look into it.”  Created beings, even the best or most powerful, are not up to the task.  We cannot take on the plan of the creator and make it reality in our own strength or wisdom.

Verse 4: “No one was found worthy,” a realization of the sinfulness and injustice of human society.  Yet those unworthy are gathered around the lamb  and participate in his worthy, just reign.  (See verse 10 – “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests…they will reign on earth.”)

Verse 5: “Lion of Judah,” “Root of David,” these are images of Jewish messianic expectation.  A Jewish apocalyptic work from a bit before the time Revelation was written wrote about the Messiah confronting Rome as a lion reproving the eagle.  Isaiah wrote about the one who will come from the stump of Jesse, from his roots, as the one who will begin an age in which the wolf will live with the lamb, and all the world will know God.  This grounds Jesus firmly in Jewish understanding of God, and of messianic expectation.  Again we see that, for John, Christianity is not a negation or rejection of Judaism, but its unfolding to a greater depth.

The lion has conquered.  This references the crucifixion and resurrection.  It is finished; accomplished; a done deal.  Christ can open the scroll in John’s vision, because that shows us in symbolic terms what he has already accomplished in his time on earth.

So, the elder tells John that the lion has conquered, and what John actually sees is…

Verse 6:  …the lamb.  The lion who has conquered is a slain lamb.  He is both at once.  He conquers by being slaughtered; his triumph is the cross.

Seven horns and seven eyes; again, seven for completeness.  Seven eyes (for wisdom) the lamb has/is all wisdom.  Seven horns (for strength) the lamb has all strength, is all-powerful.

The translation above (the NRSV) says he is “between the throne…” but that’s not a very good rendering of the Greek.  The lamb is “in the middle” of the throne, at the centre of all that is going on.  At the centre of creation, at the centre of redeemed humanity, at the centre of authority and power.  The throne seems to be a dual-occupancy set up; the Father (although John doesn’t use that term) is on the throne, and the lamb is somehow also at the centre of the throne, at the centre of God’s being.

This whole picture; the location of the lamb, and his being described as having all wisdom and power, is making an extremely high claim for Christ’s identity as God.  This is why he, and he alone, can open the scroll.

It also tells us that at the centre of reality is One who suffers.  The lamb has been slain in order to accomplish his purpose.  We are not alone in our suffering, but the one who is at the centre of all being suffers along with us.  This also suggests why those who worship the lamb cannot avoid suffering; the closer we get to the heart of the lamb, the closer we get to a heart which aches for and with a suffering world.  More than that, it points us to the costliness of grace.  The lion is a lamb, suffered, was slain, because of us, and pays that price out of love.  At the centre of the throne is not only one who suffers, but who does so willingly and out of love for us.

The point of all this is to say that this is a safe place for us.  Before the awesome throne, the control centre of the universe, we are safe because we face a God who willingly suffers for and with us, who freely gives his very self to make things right for us. Here is grace; here we are known, and loved, and safe.

Verse 7:  That Christ can take the scroll from the one on the throne (identified as the Father), reflects the Father’s giving Jesus all power, both in heaven and on earth.  This is a comfort to us, because Christ is trustworthy to hold that power.

Verse 8:  “twenty-four elders…each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” Harps were traditional instruments used by Levites in the liturgy of the Jerusalem temple, as leaders and representative worshippers.  Here also the elders function as leaders, and what they do represents what should be part of the life of all believers.  Note their presentation of prayers (represented symbolically by incense).  So all of us should offer to God prayer and praise, confident that they reach even to the throne at the deepest centre of all reality.

Verse 9: A new song as response to new revelation, new understanding of the one on the throne.  Christ is worthy because he was slain; his actions and self-sacrifice in the service of the divine plan allow him to open the scroll for all.  The proof is the resurrection; Jesus took everything evil could throw at him, even to death, but even that was not able to destroy or corrupt or entangle Jesus.  He has overcome.

Verse 10:  “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth…” Christ is reigning now.  The throne is a present reality.  Our sharing in his reign is not merely an image for the future, but one for now, if we choose to align ourselves completely with his reign.  This is why we are already a kingdom and priests, serving our God; we already participate in his reign, in bringing about his will, in the world.  (As a side note, this is not a reference to the particular work of ordained priests, for those denominations which have them, but references the priestly nature of the whole redeemed people of God, of whom ordained priests are authorised servants and representatives).  The powers of righteousness, justice, peace, truth, goodness, joy, love, faith, and so forth, which up until now have been consciously claimed only by the Jews, are poured out into all the nations on earth.  God’s kingdom is a body of people each of whom makes present God’s freedom and power in triumphing with Christ over sin and evil.  As one kid in a confirmation class put it, “Heaven is wherever God is acknowledged.”

This participation in Christ’s reign involves us in faithful witness, orienting ourselves to the throne at the centre and letting our lives show his reign.  It involves intercession; we have already seen in verse 8 the prayers of the saints offered to the throne, in the image of incense.  We bring the world and its brokenness and its evil before the throne, into the presence of the triumphant suffering of the lamb, for healing.  And it involves martyrdom; taking whatever comes as a result of doing as the lamb does.  Evil is only overcome by the power of sacrificial goodness; it is not overcome by being answered in kind.  This is the paradox of a slain lamb on the throne.  This is not passivity or weakness; this is a refusal to let evil set the agenda or be in control.  The lamb who was slain is on the throne, and he has ultimate control and triumph.

“…on earth.”  Ultimate hope is for the renewal of creation, not existence in some transcendent disembodied realm.

Verse 11:  Just as the one on the throne was praised for creation, now the lamb is praised for redemption.  Creation and redemption, though, are inseparable; the one on the throne redeems by creating anew.  The creator and the redeemer both occupy the throne; they are one.  Again, a very high claims for Jesus’ divine nature.

Verse 12:  “Worthy is the lamb to receive power…wealth…wisdom…might…honour…glory…blessing.”  Sevenfold praise; complete praise.  The lamb is worthy of all.

Verse 13:  The song of all creation: “Blessing and honour and glory and might.”  The word here translated might is kratos.  It shares roots with the -cracy suffix for different types of government, and is again a reference to the kind of power expressed in reigning.  Note the very common liturgical use of this text in Eucharistic prayers, and the extraordinarily high claim it makes for the relationship between what we do in our gathering for worship, and worship at the deepest level of spiritual reality.

Verse 14:  Notice that the living creatures who began the heavenly liturgy in chapter four by crying, “Holy, holy, holy…” here bring this worship scene to a close by saying Amen to all the worship of all the heavenly beings, all the redeemed people of the earth, and all creation.  Again, this has parallels with the Amen at the end of the great thanksgiving in Eucharistic liturgies, and the way we use these words says much (again) about their relationship to this scene of heavenly, human and cosmic worship; how we participate in this underlying reality at the most profound level.

Unfortunately, I don’t expect to be able to work my way through the entirety of Revelation this year.  I plan to do one more study next week, on Chapter 12, which I hope to post here as well.

Understanding Revelation Chapter Four

I did all this in-depth work on the symbolism of Revelation for a Bible study, so thought it might as well be posted here rather than only be used once.

First, some background.

I know that Revelation is, for most people, a confusing jumble of images; a series of visions without a good plot line, mixed in with a vague idea that this is supposed to have something to do with the end of the world.  And – if we’re honest – it generally doesn’t make a lot of sense, and we tend not to read it very much.

And I really need to start by saying that it is completely okay if you’ve never felt that Revelation made much sense.  There is a very good reason for that, and it’s a completely normal reaction.  And the very good reason is that Revelation, unlike most of the Bible, is written in a style which (as far as I know) is pretty much a dead art form.  There’s nothing in that style being written today, and so we haven’t learnt to read or make sense of it.

Unlike the gospels, which are basically narratives, or the letters, which are – well, letters – usually following a line of argument and instruction which we can recognise, or the psalms, which are poetry – you see, all of these are styles of writing still in use, and of which we know how to make sense.  But Revelation, like a couple of other bits of Scripture, is written in a style called “apocalyptic.”  That’s a word which English has borrowed from Greek, and it literally means “unveiling,” or “uncovering.”

The idea behind this kind of writing is that the physical world around us – what we can see, hear, touch and so on – is the not the whole truth about reality.  Behind all of life – says apocalyptic writing – is deeper truth and deeper meaning.  This kind of writing is a little peek behind that veil – beyond the physical things we can see and touch – using symbols to let us into the deeper truths and meanings of life.  Things are not as they seem!

This was a common genre in Jewish and Christian writings of a couple of centuries either side of Christ; often thought to have been developed as a response to oppression and persecution.  There is a rich and complex common vocabulary of imagery and thought in many of these texts, drawn from Scriptural roots, the Roman Imperial cult, and everyday life (notice other apocalyptic bits in the Bible, eg. Mark 13, Luke 21, 1 Thessalonians 4; Book of Daniel; etc).  These texts were crafted to be both obscure if they fell into the wrong hands, and a powerful source of encouragement when read as they were intended.

Revelation is thought to have been written sometime towards the end of the first century, in a context where Christians were suffering persecution from the Romans and rejection from the Jews.  It sets out a strong vision of Christ’s person, presence and triumph, as encouragement to what were probably isolated, frightened, discouraged groups of believers.  (This is about both present and future, described in chapter 1 as “what is, and what is to take place after this.”  It’s a mistake to think of this as all being about the time of the end; the end is only relevant here insofar as it explains what is already happening.  We are, according to this way of understanding things, already in the beginning of the end.

So, after that long preamble, what is being said in Revelation chapter 4?  Here’s the text, followed by a quick point-by-point tour of the most agreed on and theologically significant images.

Revelation 4:2-11

2At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! 3And the one seated there looks like jasper and cornelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. 4Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. 5Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; 6and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.

Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. 8And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,
‘Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come.’
9And whenever the living creatures give glory and honour and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, 10the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,
11 ‘You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honour and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.’

 

Verse 2:  John sees a throne.  A supreme power.  A control centre for the universe.  A locus of authority.  And a person on the throne; power, control, authority are not up for grabs; there’s someone looking after people, events, things.  Chaos, evil and death are not running the show, even when it feels otherwise to us.  Notice that as the description unfolds, everything is located and described in relation to the throne: around the throne, on each side of the throne, from the throne, in front of the throne, before the throne; the throne is the reference point for everything else, including and most especially all true worship.  A physicist might sum this up by saying that the throne is point 0, 0, 0, 0 of existence.

The universe is not undirected, meaningless or out of control.  It has someone in the driver’s seat.  The challenge: do we trust him?  Do we ignore him?  Do we oppose him?

Verse 3:  The one on the throne looks like jasper and cornelian.  Gemstones.  Beauty, majesty, radiance are suggested.  God is altogether lovely, even if John doesn’t have the language to convey that with precision.

Around the throne is a rainbow, a reminder of God’s promise to never again destroy the earth by flood.  In effect, this is saying that God is encompassed in mercy and faithfulness; despite its awesomeness, this is a safe place, even for us.

Verse 4: John sees 24 elders, who represent the 12 patriarchs of Israel, and Christ’s 12 apostles.  That they are united in worship here emphasizes a continuity and unity of worship between Judaism and Christianity.  And they are seated on thrones; these are centers of power and authority also, but delegated from and arranged around the central throne.  God’s sovereignty is exercised in and through his people on earth.  They are dressed in white robes; elsewhere in Revelation we are told that these are the people who overcome evil, those whom Christ has saved and who are to enjoy eternity under his reign.  And in golden crowns, which represent life in and with the lamb.

Verse 5: From the throne come lightning and thunder: this is not a passive, quiescent God; but lightning and thunder announce his ongoing (awesome, powerful) activity in the world.  This is a presage of judgement, and yet, it is a judgement which purifies and heals.  Before the throne are seven flaming torches, which symbolize the purifying and healing consequences of being in God’s presence, and the illumination and revelation we receive.  Seven is the number of completeness; this is a way of referring to the Holy Spirit in the completeness of His attributes.  Seven says that the Spirit of God is completely present, completely available, completely engaged in this life at the deepest level of reality.

Verse 6:  In front of the throne is a sea of glass/crystal.  Normally, in Jewish thought, the sea represents chaos and evil, a is a way of signifying threat.  But here is a sea not chaotic or evil, but smooth, still, flat.  It is an image of tranquility, a contrast with how we often experience the ups and downs of life, which reminds us that beneath those experiences there is a deep and abiding stability and peace.  Chaos will not win.  Before the throne, chaos is subdued and stilled.  (And in fact, later in Revelation, when John has a vision of the new creation, there is no longer any sea at all).

Around the throne are living creatures full of eyes.  While there’s a lot more to say about the living creatures, the eyes themselves seem to be a symbol of God’s omniscience.

Verse 7: There is a long standing traditional association between the four living creatures around the throne, and the authors of the four gospels.  Whether that’s what John had in mind, given that at his time the books of the Bible hadn’t been codified and he may not even have known all of the gospels as we now have them, I am not so sure.  It seems likely that that is a later application of the imagery.

There is, however, rabbinic use of this imagery which can shed some light on what John might have meant; the rabbis of his era taught that “There are four mighty creatures.  The mightiest among birds is the eagle, the mightiest among domestic animals is the ox, the mightiest among the wild animals is the lion, the mightiest of them all is man; and God has taken all these and secured them to his throne.”  So the four creatures represent all of life in creation, made by God, for God, and worshipping him as their creator.

However, what the four creatures, with their difference in form and yet unity of worship, do seem to represent is something about the universality of the gospel message and of the worship which is (should be) offered to God, so the later connection to the gospel authors seems not inappropriate.

Verse 8:  Holiness as the essential, fundamental attribute of God.  Holy meaning absolutely pure, completely other than and transcendent of all of creation.  Here John is picking up imagery and words from Isaiah 6, “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’ “

This triple acclamation of God as holy has become incorporated into the Eucharistic liturgies of many Christian traditions. Revelation talks about creatures in heaven singing without ceasing, “Holy, holy, holy…” and the liturgy puts us in that vision when it says, “Therefore with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we proclaim your great and glorious name, for ever praising you and saying: Holy, holy, holy…”  We imply that we participate in the worship of heaven, in the deepest level of reality, the one which determines everything else.  We make an extraordinarily high claim for what we do in worship.  That means that when we begin our worship services, we are entering into worship which is already in progress.  It does not begin and end with us.  Rather we step into and out of deliberate and conscious participation in this heavenly constant.

Further, God is acclaimed as Almighty.  God is not ruled; he rules.  He is not a victim of circumstance or manipulation.  “Who was and is and is to come.”  This reality is unchanging; through all of life’s changes and chances, this reality is a central, stable, unmoving truth.

Verse 10: The elders cast their crowns before the throne.  Remember that we already know that the crown is a symbol for a redeemed life; so this is a setting aside of all claim to authority or glory in their own right; rather they take all they are and have and lay it down before the throne, since all of life flows from and revolves around the throne of the creator.  We are invited to see this as a representative action, showing what the worshipful action of all believers is/should be, and pointing up the evil of the failure to do so on the part of “the world.”

Verse 11:  “You have created all things, and by your will they have their being.”  Everything, even the powers of evil we experience (wherever we locate them), is contingent on God.  Evil’s being is constrained by God; it can’t pass the boundaries or limits placed by the God who creates all.  Also, God the creator can create again.  The next time God speaks in Revelation is towards the end, where he tells us that “Look!  I make all things new.”  There is hope for a new reality, a new experience, because the one on the throne is the creator of all.

Phew!  There you have it… stay tuned, I expect to post much the same sort of commentary on chapter 5 next week.

Whom do you worship?

This is the text of a sermon for the first Sunday after Easter, in the parish where I’m placed this year.  The Scripture text it references is Revelation 1:4-8.

Whom do you worship?

That might seem like a strange question.  We’re here in church, on the first Sunday after Easter, full of the joy of the resurrection, refreshed in our Christian commitment… whom do I think you worship?

Perhaps it might surprise you if I tell you that I have been in church services where worship has been offered to a person’s ego; to intellectualism; to particular human causes, whether they be political or military or even scientific; or to power and its various abuses.  Those things determined what was done, said, and expected more than any desire to honour God.  Or perhaps, if you’ve been paying attention in your worshipping life, it won’t surprise you very much at all.  But I’m new here, and still only beginning to listen to people’s stories and sensitivities, so I still need to ask; whom do you worship?

And that question is at the heart of the reading we heard this morning from Revelation.  Now I know that Revelation is, for most people, a confusing jumble; a series of visions without a good plot line, mixed in with a vague idea that this is supposed to have something to do with the end of the world.  And – if we’re honest – it often doesn’t make a lot of sense, and we tend not to read it very much by choice.  But the Church reads it now, in Eastertide, while we are still celebrating what Christ has done, even though we may be acutely aware of how incomplete his work in us remains.  And that’s no accident.

But I really need to start by saying that it is completely okay if you’ve never felt that Revelation made much sense.  There is a very good reason for that; Revelation, unlike most of the Bible, is written in a genre which is pretty much a dead art form.  But the key to making sense of it is in the name – “apocalyptic.”  That’s a word which English has borrowed from Greek, and it literally means “unveiling,” or “uncovering.”

The idea behind this kind of writing is that the physical world around us – what we can see, hear, touch and so on – is not the whole truth about reality.  A community like this one has something of a head start, perhaps, in being able to come to grips with this; and that’s because apocalyptic writing, in its use of symbols and images to convey deeper truth, is a lot like the language of liturgy. Just as, behind the symbol of shared bread, is the deeper truth of our belonging to one another in the church, just as behind the symbol of lit candles is the truth of the light that Christ brings into our lives, and so on – I could go on for ages – behind all of life, says apocalyptic writing, is deeper truth and deeper meaning.

And so I suspect that a community like this, familiar with reading meaning out of carefully constructed and elaborate liturgies, is already better equipped than some might be to make sense of the similar thought world of this kind of writing.

And if we are unveiling layers of meaning, that implies that things are not entirely as they might seem.  So let’s take a few minutes to look at what John says is really going on behind the veil of the mundane.

“Look! He is coming.”  That Jesus is coming is said here in the portion we read this morning and repeated over and over through the text of Revelation.  Jesus is not enthroned in heaven in a way which is passive, removed from the world, or waiting for the time of the end before doing anything.  He is moving now; he is coming.  Jesus is pressing in on the world; he is challenging the powers which are at work keeping the world outside the reign of God; and that challenge creates great disruption.  Our reality, our world, is shaped – we are shaped – through the Spirit’s impelling us human beings into action; nudging and prodding us, until we take up and carry out an agenda which God has authorised, and in which God is present.  If you thought Easter was the end of a story, a point of joy and fulfilment, this text says think again; Christ is coming.

So this text lifts the veil on Christ’s power at work in the world, and in doing so it brings us to an edge, a brink; it shows us that the reign of God meets the world around us, and calls us forward to that edge, to commit to that reign of God.  This commitment – which is not limited to what happens inside the boundaries of the church – these actions are our worship!  Our participation in God’s saving activity is the way in which we acknowledge his rule, and is our worship. Not just our liturgical worship, but every aspect of our lives in which we rightly prioritise and value God.  Here is the continuity between the identity we find in liturgy, and the identity we live out continuously through all the rest of our lives as well.  Christ is coming, and that calls us to make decisions.  Whom will we worship?

Then, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God.” I was fascinated to see, when we stripped the altar during Holy Week, that it is carved with an Alpha and Omega on its front panels.  These words stand quite literally at the centre of our worshipping life.  Christ is the beginning and the end.  All of creation, all of time, all of existence is within his embrace.  And in that, Christ is coming.  He is near, and the end, the final fulfilment of creation, is also coming, is also near, is also breaking in to our reality.  Our final fulfilment, our experience of being all we are created and meant to be, is coming, is near, is breaking into our reality.

We all have experience of brokenness and falleness and alienation. But set against that, this claim also gives us opportunity for incredible hope.  Creation is reaching its end in Christ.  We are becoming like him.

And so we gather again around this table, with its reminder that Christ is all in all.  We come to meet him, even as he comes to meet us.  And while we find here again encouragement, hope, strength to persevere and overcome, we find also a series of disturbing questions.

What determines what we do, or say, or expect of one another?  What thrones do we have in our midst, other than that of God?  Are we prepared, when we come to this table, to have all else called into radical question and even possibly judgement?

When all else falls into irrelevance and all the veils are lifted, whom do we worship?

The Lord be with you.