Jesus in the Book of Revelation 1876295082

This apocalyptic text in the New Testament has quite a lot to say; and it does so in ways whose meaning will never be ex

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Jesus in the Book of Revelation
 1876295082

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John McSweeney

JESUS IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION "

STPAULS

Acknowledgments Scripture quotations taken from the New RL''Oised Stalldard Version Bible, ~) copyright l,)S') by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ of the United States of America. Used with permission. Extracts from Revelatioll, (Sacra Pagina series), Wilfrid J Harrington, Collegeville, Minnt'Sut(l; Tht:' Liturgical Press, 1')93 Used with permission.

JESUS IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION © John McSweeney, 1999 First Published, April 1999 All rights reserved. No part of this book may be repmduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electroniC or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing frbm the Publisher. National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-'Publication Data: McSweeney, John Jesus in the Book of Revelation Bibliography ISBN 1 876295 08 2

1. Jesus Christ. 2. Bible. NT Revelation - Criticism, interpretation, etc. I. Title, (Series: Australian biblical project). 22R.077 Published by ST PAULS PUBLICATIONS - SOCiety of St Paul 60-70 Broughton Rd - PO Box 906 - Strathfield, NSW 2135 Printed by Ligare Pty Ltd ST PAULS PUBLICATIONS is an activity of the Priests and Brothers of the Society of Paul who plact~ at the centre of their lives the mission of evangelisOltion through the means of social communication.

For Tim

This book would not have been possible without the inspiration of Professor Ugo Vamli SI who lectured me during l1ly studies at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome, in the late 19805. A number of his insights which were offered to /./s students durillg lectures are illcorporated in this book. My thanks are extended also to those who read the manllscript and offered many enlightel1ing suggestions: to my col/eague at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, Rev Dr Richard Lemwn; to II former student of the Institute and a good frieHd, Rev Darryl Mackie; and to my parents, Frank McSweeney and lean McSweeney DAM. I take this opportunity to thank also Rev Michael Trai1lor, editor of the Australian Biblical Project, for his support and encouragemeut; and the staff of St Pauls Publications for their careful attention ill the publishing of this work.

Contents

The Australian Biblical Project

9

Introduction

17 ,

1. Jesus and the seven letters (Rev 1:1-3:22)

33

2. The lamb, the scroll, the seals (Rev 4:1-7:17)

45

3. Trumpets and woes (Rev 8:1-11:14)

67

4. Three signs: the womap., the dragon, the bowls (Rev 11:15-16:16)

89

5. Babylon, battles and victory (Rev 16:17-20:15)

115

6. The bridegroom, the bride, the end (Rev 21:1-22:21)

141

Glossary

158

Further reading

160

The Australian Biblical Project

The difficulties of life can lead us to look for different ways to make sense of what is happening to us. The earliest faith communities have tried to make sense of their times in the light of their ex,:perience of God and Jesus. Their conviction of God's involvement in the midst of life's perplexity is reflected in the writings of the Bible. These writings can also help us find meaning in what is happening around us. Their insights can help us live authentically. As we seek to grapple with the complexity of the social and ethical issues of our time, the faith perspectives offered us by the Bible's writers about God and Jesus are a p()werful source of wisdom. This task of engaging the faith perspective of these ancient writers can seem daunting. Understanding the Bible, its history or even the tools that scholars use in coming to a deeper appreciation of its various forms of literature can overwhelm us. The Australian Biblical Project presents the best of current biblical scholarship in a way that enables readers to come to a deeper appreciation of the Bible. The Project is explicitly designed for people with little background knowledge to the Bible who are seeking to engage the Scriptures in the light of our contemporary world. The

10

JESUS IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION

Project seeks to address two fundamental questions: • How relevant is the Bible today? • What might it say to the situations in which we find ourselves? Writers of the Project communicate the insights of biblical scholarship effectively and are drawn from the various Christiim traditions. Therefore, while the Project is based on fine critical biblical scholarship, it is fundamentally ecumenical and will make the Bible accessible to all. The series of books which make up th.e Project cover various aspects of the Old and New Testaments. These books may be used for private reflection or'as the basis for prayer and study in small faith groups, Bible study groups, house churches and basic Christian communities. \'

The chapters of each book offer material suitable for a session of study and reflection in a small group setting. A book's chapter could form the basis for group sharing which would benefit from individual or private reading and reflection prior to the meeting. Questions conclude each chapter. These questions are critical. They bring the Bible into dialogue with our own world and our own experience. They are the catalyst for group discussion or individual reflection. Through them the contemporary implications of the material presented can be teased out. It is hoped that the Allstralian Biblical Project will make an important contribution to the faith life of the Christian churches in our land, that it will help to take the dust-

The Australian Biblical Project

11

covered Bible off our shelves, and that it will show what relevance this ancient and nurturing collection of sacred writings has for us today.

Michael Trainor Series editor

JESUS IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION

12

Suggestions for group use 1. Read the material of the chapter prior to meeting.

2. Decide on the length of time the group wishes to meet and stick to it. If hospitality is offered (a cup of coffee, biscuits, etc.) keep it simple. 3. As the group moves into the formality of meeting, participants could briefly recall what stayed with them from the last session. 4. Some time (though not an excessive amount) might be giVt-'11 over to identifying essential points that people noted in their reading. A brief time could be spent helping to clarify perplexing insigi1ts.

5. A question such as 'What tOl/ched you 'as you read?' rather than 'What did you thhlk about the chapter?' might be a better way to open up reffection on the ~ap~

~

6. The group leader would need to check that (4) does not dominate meeting time and that group sharing does not turn into a debate over the chapter's content. 7. The questions at the end of each chapter are the heart of the meeting and where most time would be spent. 8. These questions are intended as a guide and not to be slavishly adhered to. Not all questions need to be covered either. In fact, the questions may suggest others more pertinent to the group. 9. Before the meeting concludes: •

decide on who will co-ordinate the group next time. Rotating group lendership helps to take the responsibility off one person;

The Australian Biblical Project

13

• invite each person to review how they found the session. This is intended as a review of the meeting and not another chance to continue the discussion.

A suggested meeting structure (90 mins) 1. Welcome (5 mins)

2. What stayed with you from the last meeting? (10 millS) 3. What important points did you note from reading the chapter? What touched you as you read? (15 mills) 4. Work through questions frorp the chapter and/or other questions suggested by the group (50 mins) 5. For next time: Who leads the group? 6. Review of the meeting (5 mins)

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JESUS IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION

A check list for the session leader 1. Going overtime can be a source of frustration for people, so ensure the group sticks to its agreed time for meeting.

2. It helps the flow of the session if the leader is familiar with the suggested outline and time sequence of the meeting agreed upon by the group. 3.

Members of the group will find sessions far more enjoyable if everyone participates. At times it may be necessary to quieten those who seem to be doing the most talking and encourage those who are much quieter.

4. It can become a trap if the leader is expected to be the group's encyclopaedia rather than its facilitator. It may help to check out this expectation V\:,'hen assigning leadership for the session and to encourage members to share their own wisdom rather than look to one particular person. •

.

5. It is important for the group to keep moving through each session rather than getting bogged down on what might be a rather technical point. H this happens suggest someone research the point in contention, for example, and bring the information to the next meeting. 6. Be a time-keeper. Remind the group of how much time is left until the end of the session. This helps to keep the group focused. 7. If the questions at the end of each chapter seem suitable and helpful, make sure that appropriate time is set aside to work through them. H. At the end of each session organise the co-ordinator

for next time. Spread the work load!

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VI

Introduction

The book of Revelation is fraught with difficulties in its interpretation. It lends itself to much misunderstanding and wrong application. Often, people assume that it does not have much to say to the contemporary church. Indeed, I would venture to suggest that the vast majority of Christians have not even read the book of Revelation, or, if they have, they have dismissed ,it as the ravings of a lutlatic with little relevance to Christian living. What most people do not understand, however, is that the book of Revelation belongs to a body of literature that has a long history in Judaism and early Christianity. This literary genre is known as apocalyptic literature; and apocalyptic thought gave rise to much of the world view that is behind the writings of our N~w Testament. Thus, the book of Revelation is not unique, but part of a much wider approach to the understanding of God's will for humankind. In this book, I wish to take issue with those who dismiss the book of Revelation as irrelevant. This apocalyptic text in the New Testament has quite a lot to say; and it does so in ways whose meaning will never be exhausted. By following a process of interpretation that understands the text in its original context and then applies these findings to today, I hope to show the reader that the book of Revelation has much to offer the contemporary Christian who is battling those forces - real or metaphorical - opposed to the will of God.

18

JESUS IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION

By way of introduction, this initial chapter will examine what we mean by apocalyptic literature and its attendant world view; the symbolism in apocalyptic and the book of Revelation; and the various ways of interpreting this intriguing Christian text. Beginning with a brief examination of its historical background and geographical setting, the chapter will conclude with a discussion of the structure of the book of Revelation.

The historical and geographical setting of the book of Revelation Contemporary biblical scholarship maintains that the book of Revelation was written towards the end of the first Christian century during the reign of the Roman emperor, Domitian (81-96 CE). Domitian was obsessed with being caIiE'd Domilllls et Oms Iloster (our Lord and God). He demaQded that all in the ('mpire should sacrifice to his image, thereby offering him worship. Needless to say, this cause'd the Christian people some distress; and their refusal to sacrifice resulted in much persecution, even unto death. Martyrdom became an integral part of the Christian experience. We will see this theme - faithful death rather than worship of a false god - over and over agclin clS we move through the text of Revelation. The author of the book of Revdation wrote from the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea, off the coast of the Roman province of Asia, part of modern day Turkey. Calling himself John (Rev 1:-1), he wwte to seven key church communites in the Ephesus region of Roman Asii1: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, ThYcltira, Sardis, I'hilc1udphia, and Laodicea (see mc1P on page 15). Tht:'se seven churches \'\'t.'re prominent communities in the life of the early Church, pc1rticulc1rly Ephesus where

Introduction

19

Paul of Tarsus made his base for a number of years. Tradition places the Johannine community in Ephesus and the book of Revelation has many links to the theology of the Johannine church that gave rise to the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel according to John. The author had a message of hope to convey to a persecuted people. And he made use of an apocalyptic literary style to do this. We need to spend some time investigating apocalyptic literature and its attendant world view~ an examination which will greatly aid our understanding of the book of Revelation.

Apocalyptic literature Simply stated, apocalyptic literatzm! is that body of writings which found its origin during the Maccabean revolt against the Empire of Syria in the second century BeE. The Jewish people had been under the political control of Syria for two hundred years. Increasingly, Jewish laws and customs were being threatened by Hellenism - an approach that sawall things Greek as the only acceptable way to live. When the Syrian emperor Antiochus Epiphanes IV decided to set up an image of himself in the temple in Jerusalem, conunanding that he be worshipped as a god, the patience of the Jewish people was exhausted and revolt ensued (see 1 Macc 1-7 for a detailed report of this revolt). The style of writing that arose at this time was used whenever moments of crisis occurred during the next three centuries. Apocalyptic is a literary genre with a particular symbolic approach to the world that reflects the difficulties of a people who suffer persecution and misadventure. The basic point of all apocalyptic texts is to give comfort to those suffering persecution or crisis, reassuring the reader that God is in control of all events; and, therefore,

20

JESUS IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION

everything will tum out all right for those who remain faithful to the will of God. This was the purpose of the book of DanieL It was written during the Maccabean revolt, and it was meant to strengthen the backbone of Jews who were succumbing to the temptati(lOs of Hellenism. Emphasis on dietary laws and the keeping of the sabbath (some of the signs of a good Jew) are found in Daniel (see Dan 1:5-8). At the same time Daniel was being written, early sections of the first book of Enoch (1 Enoch 1-36, the Book of the Watchers, and 72-82, the Astronomical Book) were produced. These chapters offered a message of support to those who were throwing off the yoke of Syrian domination. Many books were written during the next three centuries that utilised this apocalyptic style. Qnly two overtly apocalyptic texts made it into our bible - the books of Daniel and Revelation. However, many" others exist; and they have had a lasting influence on Jewish and Christian thought. Called apocryphal (hidd~n) or illtertestamel1tal (between the testaments) literature, John J Collins in his book, The ApoCtllyptic Imagillation (New York: Crossroad, 1987) offers a masterful summary of the thought of these major apocalyptic works. The book of Revelation is really only one instance of this much broader approach to the comprehension of God and the history of salvation; it grew out of the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor, Domitian, c 95 CEo

The history and rise of apocalyptic literature What are the historical antecedents of such literature? Although coming into existence as a literary type during the Maccabean Revolt, apocalyptic finds its literary origins in various places. roremost among these arc some of the prophetic writings of the Old Testament, in particular the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Haggai and

Introduction

21

Zechariah (see especially Isa 24-27; 56-66; Ezek 40-48; d. Paul Hanson, The Dawn of Apocalyptic [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975]). Nevertheless, it is from outside of Judaism that we discover other forerunners of apocalyptic. There are strong Babylonian and Persian influences in apocalyptic thought: the interpretation of dreams; the 'prediction' of past events leading to an acceptance of predictions about the future; and a strong deterministic thrust (in which every aspect of life and history is already mapped out). Also, in the Hellenistic (Greek) world of the last few centuries before Jesus, there was much interest in the heavenly world, with heavenly journeys and the judgement of the dead figuring prominently. All of these ideas gave rise to apocalyptic thinking. ludaism incorporated these ideas into its own theological tradition, making them serve a monotheistic theology, as is discovered in the book of Daniel. It is a process which has been repeated over and over again down through the centuries by Christian thinkers, men and women who have 'christianised' the secular or non-religious spheres and incorporated new idea$ and patterns of thought into the mainstream of Christian theology. A final note: the book of Revelation makes immense use of the Jewish scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament. Although the author of Revelation never quotes the Old Testament, he certainly alludes or refers to thousands of texts. These allusions are supplemented by further references to the intertestamental or apocalyptic texts of Judaism. Allusion and innuendo abound; familiarity with the content of both the Old Testament books and intertestamental works helps in the interpretation of Revelation. Indeed, the student of the book of Revelation needs to be ready to refer to the bible at all times.

22

JESUS IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION

The apocalyptic world view Of utmost importance is the apoCtilyptic world view that is behind this style of writing. Such a world view revolves around hvo poles: the temporal (or time axis) and the spatial (or place axis). Both are needed if a particular work is to be deemed apocalyptic (see John J Collins, 'Introduction: towards a morphology of the genre' in St'lIIcill 14 (1979) pp 1-20). The lemporal poll' refers to the way apocalyptic authors approach time. In apocalyptic literature, everything is directed by God towards the end of time. The last day, which figures prominently in biblical texts, is called the eSc/lllloll (from the Greek meaning 'last'); and the study of the last times is called esclwlulogy. Apocalyptic literature is very eschatological, in that it is extremely interested in the last moments of world history. En?rything is moving towards the final moment when God will bring to an end the story of humanity and finalise its salvation. Hence, much of the content of apocalyptic texts deals with this conclusion of history - an ending that sees God as victor over any forces opposed to God's will. The author or seer (for he or she 'sees') is offered an insight - via dream or vision - into what is to happen at the end of time. Such experiences utilise certain accepted symbolic forms to express the basic message that God has life all mapped out; there is, therefore, no need to worrv. Indeed, the future is always better than the present; the future is a time of righteousness freed from the evil influences of the present. We note that this way of approaching the future is quite dcll'rlllill istic, a philosophical understilnding that does not allow much room for the freedom of the individual. Everything follows a divinely ordained schedule of events with a predetermined end. God is in total contrOl in apocalyptic thought. Again. this is meant to give comfort

Introduction

23

to, and elicit hope in, a persecuted people, encouraging them to repent of any wrongdoing and remain faithful to God's will. This will ensure salvation. In addition to this temporal thrust, there is a spatial one. The spatial pole refers to the way apocalyptic understands the heavenly and earthly spheres of existence. The earthly and the heavenly spheres of existence are inextricably bound together: what happens in heaven has a strong bearing on what happens on the earth; indeed, the heavenly sphere is considered the more real sphere of existence, the earthly being a mere reflection of the heavenly. In addition, there is an abundance of otherworldly beings inhabiting different levels of heaven, an involved and complicated cosmology. While nearly all texts of the Old Testament refer to angel in the singular, the angel or messenger of the Lord, once we enter into apocalyptic works, we encounter myriads of angels (plural), beings with specific jobs to perform that go beyond the role of 'angel' in the Old Testament. Furthermore, heaven is divided up into different levels: Cod inhabits the top level (the fifth or seventh heaven). There arc different beings apd different experiences to be had in all these heavenly levels. The seer is often taken on a journey (via a dream or a vision) through these different levels of heaven. An interpreting angel-guide is on hand to explain some of the more marvellous sights encountered during this journey. Often, these heavenly journeys are made in order to reveal to the seer something of importance for the coming end of the world.

Apocalyptic symbolism in the book of Revelation The book of Revelation utilises this apocalyptic world view in describing a Christian approach to the end of time. The author also uses typical apocalyptic symbolism

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JESUS IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION

when communicating his message. The use of symbols in apocalyptic literature enabled the points of the intended message to be made in such a way that the readers would be able to utilise the text over and over again. We will discover this as we move through the text of the book of Revelation. Thus, we need to examine something of the symbolic world of apocalyptic writing, with particular reference to the book of Revelation. Of primary significance is the distinction between COIland discontillllOliS symbolism. With a continuous symbol, the effect is gained only after the whole symbol with all its parts has been elucidated. In the book of Revelation, the more relevant of the two types of symbolism is di~((JlItilll/(ll/s symbolism. Here, the symbol is not meant to be taken as a whole, but e\'ery element - piece by piece - has something to say. . tilll/OIlS

For example, in Revelation 5:6 a symboli~ description of the lamb (Jesus) is offered. We are told tha,t Jesus is 'in the middle of' the throne, the four living beings, and the tweny-four elders; and he is described as standing as if slaughtered. To place all these things together creates an unimaginable picture. Once we realise that each symbol is to be examined separately for its own meaning, that they are not to be taken together, much of the weirdness of Revelation's language and symbolism disappears. We will examine this scene in detail in chapter three. Suffice it to say here, that the symbolism in 5:6 refers to Jesus as the offspring (lamb) of God sharing in the divine role of authority over human history (the throne), the hea\'enly sphere (the four li\'ing beings) and the people of both covenants, Israel and the Church (the twenty-four elders, referring to the twelve patriarchs and the twelve apostles). Jesus has been killed (on the cross), but has been resurrected to new life (he is standing).

Introduction

25

Such an approach allows the various symbols to speak volumes to different people. Just as a homily on Sunday will offer parishioners different insights, so the apocalyptic symbolism offers diverse readers different meanings.

Types of symbolism in Revelation There are five main types of symbolism in th~ book of Revelation. Cosmic symbulism deals with the various aspects of the universe: sun, moon, land, sea. Each cosmic term has meaning. For example, heaven is the zone of the divine or eternity; earth is the zone of humankind or history; the sea is the place of chaos, a concept based on a Babylonian myth that was adopted by Judaism from an early stage in its history. There is movement within these symbols; they can change. The end of the book of Revelation sees heaven coming to earth. Thus, the zone of transcendence (the divine sphere) enters the zone of immanence (the human sphere); and the distinction between the two is blurred. God has entered history; and history is at an end. Thus, the disappearance of the old heaven and earth is not meant to be taken literally! "

Allthropological symbolism occurs when the text refers to human positions and actions. For example, God is seated on the throne, and this pOSition refers to one who has authority; those who are ~tandillg are those who are participating in the new life of the resurrection. In apocalyptic literature animal ~ylllbolisl1l abounds. Using animals to refer to key people in the narrative is common in the' Animal Apocalypse' of 1 Enoch 85-91. In this work, key protagonists of salvation history (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac) are referred to as a white bull - a being of rare power. Others who are opposed to God, such as the Ishmaelites and Egyptians, are asses and wolves

26

JESUS IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION

respectively. In Revelation, animal symbolism is quite prominent: Jesus is the Lamb (the offspring of God) or the Lion (of Judah); there are forces opposed to God - the dragon, the two beasts, the locusts. Each has a meaning in its own context, which at times is difficult to decipher. This is the most intriguing of the symbolic groupings. NUll/crimi :'l/llllm/i:'11l is common in Revelation. We must

always keep iI~ mind that a number usually refers to the qllalify of something as much as its qll£!/ltily. For example, seven is the traditional Semitic number that means 'totality' - and it is so used in Revelation; three and a half is half of seven (totality) and refers to 'partiality' - a limited period of time; and four refers to the corners of the earth or 'everywhere'.

And finally, in the book of Revelation there is chromatic that which has to do with colours. Again, as with numbers, a colour refers to a quality. 'For example, white signifies resurrection or victory oV,er the forces opposed to the divine will; red is the colour of blood or martyrdom and refers to life-force; green' is the slgn of hope, while death is pale or translucent. ~yll/l'(l/i:'lIl,

Ways of interpreting the book of Revelation Not surprisingly, there have been a number of ways in which the book of Revelation has been understood and interpreted over the centuries. Some have more merit than others. Those of a more fundamentalist or literalistic persua~;ion prefer to read into the text meanings about the present course of human history. Others can limit the interpretation to an exercise in historical criticism that simply underst,md-; Revelation as an historical document with no rl'ie\',1!1cl' for today. Another group of scholars tries to find " \'i" media that builds it message for today on the original TlH:',mings of the book. Combining a few approaches is always the best option; the text can then communicate various messages for contemporary concerns.

Introduction

27

One approach which proves perennially popular understands the words of Revelation as forecasting the course of history from the time of the seer up to our present time. This fundamentalist or literalistic approach is often subjective, responding to the whim of the interpreter; various events in history are made to fit the symbolic language without reference to the actual meaning intended by the author. This approach is the one that has caused the most misunderstanding of Revelation, offering fantastic interpretations that have little to do with reality. Related to the previous method of interpretation, the futllristic approach maintains that everything from the initial vision of heaven (Rev 4:1) onwards is yet to occur. With this approach, there is a tendency to see Revelation as a kind of biblical version of the writings of Nostradamus - a mystical game-plan for the unfolding of all major future events that herald the end of the world. Popular thinking understands the message of apocalyptic along the lines of the literalistic or futuristic approaches. However, both of these approaches fall into the category of subjective interpretation. They have little to do with the seer's original. purpose of communicating a word of comfort to a persecuted church. They read into the text meaning never envisaged by the original author; indeed, such interpretations are often at variance with the meaning of the biblical narrative. The most basic approach is to examine Revelation from the standpOint of its first century historical setting. This historical approach utilises the tools of traditional exegesis or a close reading of the biblical text, attempting as far as possible to understand the meaning intended for the original readers. Such an approach allows us to comprehend the crisis in the life of the early Church that gave rise to this particular piece of apocalyptic literature. And this way of interpreting Revelation offers a sure historical

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JESUS IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION

foundation that prevents too much eisegesis or reading a false meaning into a text. There is another hermeneutical method called the timeless sylllbolic approach. This approach does not refer to any specific events in history, but understands the book of Revelation to be an expression of basic principles in life. For example, we are witnesses to the action of God in the world; God's will always opposes evil and the forces of chaos. Robert Mounce (Revelatioll, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977 p 43) writes: 'The Apocalypse is thus a theological poem setting forth the ageless struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness'. Although of much merit, this approach can also be open to subjective interpretation unless the text is grounded in its first century context and seen as part of the tradition of apocalyptic literature. When one views a piece of contemporary art and asks the question, 'What does it mean?', on~- is asking the wrong question of the painting. Rather, one should ask, 'What does this particular piece of art do to me?' The poetic nature of Revelation can be approached from a similar perspective. Elisabeth Schussler-fiorenza (RevelatiOll: Visioll of a jllst world, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) offers what she terms a rhetorical approach. Simply put, this approach not only takes cognisance of the historical meanings of Revelation, but asks the simple question: 'What does a reading of Revelation do to someone who submits to its world of vision?' (p 4). The result is that the text will speak differently to each person. This interpretative approach examines the ways Revelation impacts on our life today. Such an approach allows the Word of God to speak to the contemporary Church, for it builds on the sure foundation of the original historical situc1tion that gave rise to the book. God's

Introduction

29

message to the Church of the late twentieth century and into the next millennium flows from the historical message to the Church of the first century, but it is not restrained by that original meaning. Interpreting Revelation is a difficult undertaking, one that must always be approached with the utmost care. In this book, emphasis will fall on understanding as far as possible what the seer hoped to communicate to his original audience; and then to take from this understanding relevant application to the contemporary scene. What must always be kept in mind is that the book of Revelation is not meant to be read from a particular denominational standpoint that nvists the words to suit one's theological conviction. It is always the aim of biblical studies to let the words of scripture speak for themselves.

Tlie structure of the book of Revelation Two points to note: first, we need to be aware that the whole vision of the seer consists of many oscillations from past through the present to the future; at times it is difficult to know whether or not we are witnessing a future or a past event. Eve,n the present appears fluid. If we think of the flashbacks and insights of a dream-experience, we come close to understanding the time sequences in Revelation. Secondly, the structure of Revelation is a matter of some debate among scholars. Nevertheless, there is a widely accepted way of following the development of the narrative; and this consists of seeing the vision as a series of events. We note that the last moment of each event contains all that follows in the book; this concept, similar to the idea of a series of concentric circles, will become clearer as we read the text of Revelation.

JESUS IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION

30 I:

1:1-3

Introductory words

II:

1:4-3:22

First Section: The letters to the seven churches

• • • • • • • •

1:4-20 2:1-7 2:8-11 2:12-17 2:18-29 3:1-6 3:7-13 3:14-22

III:

4:1-22:5

• 4:1-5:14

• • • • • •

General introduction to Ephesus to Smyrna to Pergamum to Thyatira to Sardis to Philadelphia to Laodicea

6:1-2 6:3-4 6:5-6 6:7-8 6:9-11 6:12-7:17

• 8:1-5 • 8:6-7 • 8:8-9 • 8:10-11 • 8:12 • 8:13 -9:1-11 - 9:12 • 9:13-11:13

Second Section: The heavenly vision

Setting the scene: the throne, the lamb, and the- scroll The opening of the seals: first seal second seal third seal fourth seal fifth seal sixth seal and its consequences The blowing of the trumpets: the seventh seal (8:1) contains all that follows first trumpet second trumpet third trumpet fourth trumpet first woe announced fifth trumpet - first woe two woes remain sixth trumpet - second woe and its

Introduction

31 consequences third woe remains.

• 11:14

• 12:1-2

The three signs: seventh trumpet (11:15) contains all that follows first sign - the woman

• 12:3-4 • 12:5-14:20

second sign - the dragon interaction of the two and its consequences

• • • • • • •

third sign - the angels with the seven bowls introductory vision first bowl second bowl third bowl fourth bowl fifth bowl sixth bowl

• 11:15-19

15:1-16:1 16:2 16:3 16:4-7 16:8-9 16:10-11 16:12-16

• • • • • •

16:17-21 17:1-18 18:1-24 19:1-10 19:11-16 19:17-21

• • • •

20:1-10 20:11-15 21:1-8 21:9-22:5

IV:

22:6-21

The final moments of history: The fall of Babylon and the defeat of hostile forces, and the triumph of forces loyal to the Lamb, the exaltatio9- of the celestial Jerusalem. introduction the great prostitute - Babylon fall of the prostitute - Babylon heavenly praise: a doxology Jesus as victorious warrior-king annihilation of the kings of the earth, the beast and the false prophet defeat and destruction of the dragon destruction of the last enemy - death the triumph of the bridegroom - Jesus the bride - heavenly Jerusalem Concluding words

JESUS IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION

32

Concluding Comments It is time to enter into a close reading of the book of Revelation. It will be necessary at all times to Izal'e the bible 11l1l1dy, as you will need to refer to the many biblical texts that are alluded to. Periodically, attempt to ask that most difficult of questions when reading Revelation: 'What does this do to me?' And try to find the contemporary relevance of this most magnificent book for the Christian people today.

QUESTIONS 1. What do you think of whenever the word 'apocalyptic' is used? How would you describe apocalyptic literature to another person? Is it, in your opinion, a legitimate way of writing?

2. What are the ways you have read the book of Revelation in the past? Did you identify with any of the way::; of illterpreting Revelation described in this chapter? What have been your experiences when reading the text? 3.

H~)w

do you understand what is meant by a 'symbol'? In what ways have symbols helped your reading of Scripture?

4. What do you hope to gain from a reading of Rl'velation in the ways outlined in this book?

1 Jesus and the seven letters Rev 1:1 - 3:22

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JESUS IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION

On the Lord's day (1:10), Sunday, John undergoes a religious experience which results in the writing down of what we now call the book of Revelation. He was 'in the spirit', which probably means that he was in deep prayer, perhaps in a spiritual trance. Such was a common occurrence among those who wrote apocalyptic literature. In 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 Paul describes a similar experience of being 'in the spirit'. John's experience includes both alldititlll and 'l'isioll. He first hears a v(lice, which corrunands him to write down what he is about to see (1:11) and to send the written product to seven local church communites: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. These seven cities were in the Roman province of Asia, modern day western Turkey. John then turns around to see the person whose voice had spoken to him. And it is here that we have the initial vision of Jesus Christ in the book of Revelation (1:12-16). We note that this image of Jesus is merely fhe foundational image. As Revelation progresses, the picture we acquire of the resurrected Jesus grows cumulatively. After seeing the Lord, John again hears a voice that offers further instructions (1:17-20). Thus, there are two parts to this initial experience of Jesus: vision and audition; the structurt.' of the whole scene is modelled on Daniel 10:4-14. The picturt:, of Jesus the Lord is closely modelled on details from tlu-ee visions that are fOWld in the Old Testament. In Daniel we find a similar image about 'one like a son of man' - ,1 human-like figure whose hair is as pure as wO{ll (D,1I1 7:Y). whose feet are like burnished bronze and whose eyes c\fe like flaming torches (Dan 10:6). Ezekiel's visi{)Jls Spl'(lk of a 'man clothed in linen' (Ezek 9:2,11); this prophet (1 \so dt.'scribes Cod's coming in glory clS 'the sOWld of mighty wc1h:r:--' (ELl'k ·B:2; d. Dim 10:6). Isaiah speaks of God

Jesus and the seven letters

35

making the prophet's mouth 'like a sharp sword' (lsa 49:2). The seer understands all of these images to refer to Jesus. John's reaction to the vision and Jesus' response to this reaction find a parallel in Daniel 8:18: '(a)s he was speaking to me, I fell into a trance, face to the ground; then he touched me and set me on my feet'; see also Ezekiel 1:28; and Isaiah 44:2, where the prophet is told not to be afraid. Furthermorc, the words of Jesus the Lord to John are reflections of the 'l am' sayings that we find in the Johannine Gospel (d Jn 6:35,48; 8:12; 10:11; 11 :25; 14:6; 15:1, 5). These words flow from Old Testament texts describing God: Isaiah 44:6 - 'I am the first and the last'; Sirach 18:1 'he who lives forever'; and Job 38:17, which is about God's power over the gates of death. Lastly, Jesus takes on the role that an interpretative angel usually undertakes in most apocalyptic literature (d 1 Enoch ]7:1-2; Dan 7:16). Here, Jeslls hilllsl.'~f explains the meaning of the two key symbolic images in this first vision, both the seven golden lampstands in the midst of which Jesus is standing (1:13) and the seven stars that he holds in his right hand (1:16). The golden lampstands are said to refer to.-the seven churches which are to receive the message of this book and the stars to the angels of these same church communities. What does 'the angels of the seven churches' mean? There are three possibilities. It could refer to the church community's heavenly protector in the sense of 'guardian angel'. It could also mean the earthly leader of the local church, the cpiscopos or bishop; in this case it indicates that the leaders of the churches are in a very special relationship with the resurrected Jesus since they are held in his right or pre-eminent hand. The church's angel could also refer to the church itself in a collective sense, a kind of poetic way of speaking, thereby indicating that the churches in these seven places relate to Jesus in a special and inti-

36

JESUS TN THE BOOK OF REVELATION

mate way. All are possible. And given the poetic nature of the book of Revelation, all could be held simultaneously. We note further that the numerical symbolism of the number seven refers to the concept of 'totality'. The seven lampstands and seven stars would thus mean that Jesus holds in his hands the totality of the life and governance of the Church in a universal sense. To summarise: the first experience of Jesus in the book of Revelation reveals to the seer (the one \,..'ho 'sees') that the resurrected Lord is intimately involved in the life of the seven churches to which John is commanded to write. The attributes that the Old Testament applied to God and those of Daniel's 'one like a son of man' are now applied to Jesus: his hair is as pure as wool, his eyes like fire, his feet like burnished bronze, his voice like the sQund of many waters, his face like the shining sun, and the message from his mouth like a sharp two-edged sword Scf Heb 4:12). He is the 'one like a son of man' who holds the authority of God iTI his hands (cf Dan 7:9-14). Hence, the message that is to follow has the full authority of God. The letters to the seven churches (2:1-3:22)

The messages to the seven churches are quite concrete and specific; and yet, at the same time, they can be applied to the whole Church in all times and places. The call to conversion that the seven letters offer is as relevant today as it was lo the origin into sin (cf 2 Kings 9:22). John refers to their teaching (whatever it was) as the 'deep things of Satan' (2:24). He commends the Ephesians for ha\'ing tested those who claim to be apostles, a barb directed at these enemies called Nicolaitans. Indeed, their name originates from the Grt'ek word meaning to conquer; and we see the

38

JESUS IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION

author of Revelation encouraging his communities to repent from evildoing and sin, and therefore conqlter! Furthermore, other enemies are identified in the seven letters: those who belong to the 'synagogue of Satan' who 'say they are Jews and are not' (2:9; 3:9). This is probably a reference to those Jews who actively helped the Roman authorities in the persecution of Christians (see the Mar-

tyrdom of Polycarp 17). A mention of Pergamum being 'where Satan's throne is ... where Satan lives' (2:13) could refer to the fact that this city was the centre of emperor worship in Asia Minor. And the Christians' refusal to worship the Roman emperor was the initital cause of the persecution that was a major reason which gave rise to the writing of this apocalyptic book. The other church communities are also praised for various positive dimensions of their faith in Christ. The church in Smyrna is spiritually rich becau!>e of persecution, remaining faithful despite suffering and poverty (2:8). The Christians in Pergamum hold fast'to the 'name of Christ' and do not deny their faith, even when members of thcir community suffer martyrdom (2:13). The Thyatirans have works of love, faith, service, and patient endurance; indeed, they are now stronger in these things than when they first converted to the Lord (2:19). In Sardis, some remain faithful to the teachings of Christ and have not soiled the cleanliness of their baptismal garments, a metaphorical reference to their sinlessness (3:--1:). In Philadelphia, some have kept the word and not denied the name of Jesus (3:H), it reference to faithfulness in times of persecution. The Laodicean church community is in desperate straits, not being praised for much at all (d 3:15)!

Areas of sinfulness needing conversion Those areas that need conversion in the churches are the object of the I.md's admonition to repent and return to

Jesus and the seven letters

39

the true way of living one's faith; the communities are to avoid any people or occasions that lead them astray (d 2:5,10,16,22; 3:3, 11,.18). If the Ephesians are to conquer - that is, to win the battle against sin and evil - then they must reclaim the love they had when first converted to the Lord Jesus. This love they have lost (2:4); and this is their particular area of sinfulness.

With regard to the other churches: the Smyrnans must remain faithful in order to conquer (2:10); the people of Pergamum are to win the fight against the Nicolaitans (2:17); the Thyatirans are to hold fast and continue to do the works of the Lord until the end - death (2:26); those from Sardis are encouraged not to soil their clothes, their baptismal garments (3:5); the Philadelphians are to hold fast (3:11); and the Laodiceans are'to answer the knocking at the door and allow Jesus back in to their lives (3:20). Victories for those who conquer There are marvellous results for those who conquer and remain faithful. For the Ephesians, their doing of works as when they first believed will enable them to eat from the tree of life in paradise. Allilding to the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2:8-9, the eating of the fruit from this tree will give eternal life; what was once forbidden to humankind (d Cen 3:3, 11) will now be freely offered to faithful Christians (2:7). Indeed, the trees that give life and bring healing to the nations will be found in the new (heavenly) Jerusalem (22:2; d Ezek 47:12). Hence, humankind's original destiny to live forever will be achieved in the paradise to come. The Christians of Smyrna are encouraged to remain faithful so as to receive the crown of life (2:10), an allusion to the victory wreath that athletes won at the stadium. For the victors from Pergamum, h-vo things will be granted them: 'some of the hidden manna' and 'a white stone'

40

JESUS IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION

which has a new name for each individual written on it (2:17). Flowing from the story of the miraculous food in the desert (Ex 16:'+-36), 2 Baruch 29:8 (a Jewish apocalyptic book written just before Revelation) contains the idea of manna being the food that will be offered in the messiah's kingdom. In a Christian context, the Eucharist comes to mind. The concept behind the stone is unclear, perhaps referring to a kind of 'entrance ticket' into the messianic banquet, as stones were thus used to admit spectators to the games; the chromatic symbol (white) refers to resurrection and \"ictory; and the 'new name' contains the idea of having authority and power over one's life (cf Isa 62:2; 65:15). Thus, thl' yictors in Pergamum will enjoy new resurrected life and satisfying nourishment in the heavenly banquet at the end of time (cf 19:9). For those who hold fast and thereby" 'conquer' in Thyatira, the spoils of battle will be authprity over the nations (cf Ps 2:8-1) and the morning star (2:28). Referring to Jesus himself (22:16), this latter symbol means that the faithful will share in the Lord's life and authority over the world (cf 1 Cor 6:2; Rev 20:4). Three gifts are offered to the victors in Sardis (3:5): to wear robes that are white (pure from sin, sharing in resurrected life); not to have their names blotted out of the book of life - a heavenly book that contains the names of all those destint'd to be saved (d Ex 32:32-33; Ps 69:28; Mal 3:16; Rev 17:8; 20:12; Lk 10:20); and to have their names confessed before the Father and the angels in heaven, resulting in eternal life (d Mt 10:32; Lk 12:8). The PhiJ.:llh·lphians will be made into a pillar of the temple of God, a stable part of the heiwenly realm. Three names will be written on them: the nam~ of Cod; the name of God's own city, the new Jerusalem; and the Lord's own ndme (3: 12). This appears to be a thret.'fold st'aling of

Jesus and the seven letters

41

the faithful with divine names (cf 7:2), and therefore confirms their future existence with God and the lamb (Jesus) in heaven for seer first sees the lamb 'in the middle of the throne and the four living beings and in the middle of the elders' (~:h - Illy trallslation). This means that the lamb shares in the authority of the one seated on the throne; and he also shares in the intermediary role

The Iamb, the scroll, the seals

53

of the living beings and a leadership role in both covenants. In other words, the lamb is the central figure in the whole heavenly scene. What of the figure of a lamb? Obviously Jesus is meant, given the above titles. But why a lamb? We will see that the image of the lamb is an important one in the literature of the Old Testament and in the writings of the Johannine community. In the Old Testament there are two major uses of the image of a lamb. Firstly, it refers to the paschal lamb, the sacrificial lamb of the Passover celebration (d Ex 12:1-27). Passover commemorated the deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. A lamb is also a key metaphor in the prophetic texts, referring to a prophetic figure who represents Israel and will bring about Israel's salvation through his own suffering and death (d Isa 53:7; Jer 11:19). The Fourth Gospel speaks of the 'Lamb of God' in John 1:29,36. This is referring to Jesus as being the offspring of God; but it also contains within it all the history of the image of the lamb in the Old Testament. In 19:36, this same gospel refers to the Passover lamb when telling the reader that the bones of Jesus were"not broken, just as the bones of the Passover lamb were not to be broken (d Ex 12:46). And so, the author of the book of Revelation has continued the title of Jesus as the Lamb of God, alluding to the two concepts of the offspring of God and the sacrificial lamb whose death brings salvation to the people. This is confirmed by the description of the lamb in 5:6. The lamb is said to be 'standing as if it had been slaughtered'. The anthropological symbol of standing refers to the concept of resurrection. Jesus is living a resurrected life. At the same time, the seer sees that this lamb also seems to have been killed. This obviously refers to the death of Jesus on the cross. The Johannine tradition makes

54

JESUS IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION

much of the relationship between the death of Jesus and the sacrifice of the Passover lambs in the temple at the same time: that is, Jesus is the new Passover lamb whose death brings salvation (cf Jn 19:31, 36). We note that the word used is 'slaughtered' which refers to violent death; this is also a cultic term, the language of temple sacrifice. It might seem strange to speak of Jesus in the same breath as both alive and looking as if he had been slaughtered. But this discontinuous symbolism is also found in John 20:27, where the risen Jesus shows the marks of his passion in his hands and feet. There are further descriptions of the lamb: he has seven horns and seven eyes. The concept of seven, as we have already mentioned, refers to totality. The idea of a horn finds its antecedents in the Old Testamept. In Deuteronomy 33: 17 the horn is a sign of strength. Indeed, in Daniel 7:7 and 7:20 the fourth beast of the vision is the most powerful for he has ten horns! It is worth noting that in Daniel 8:3 there is a reference to a ram 'who has horns. This animal symbolism obviously refers to strength and power. Thus, the risen Jesus has seven horns or the totality of strength and power, and can rightly take the scroll and open all the seals. Furthermore, Jesus is said to have seven eyes. The text explains itself here: the scyen eyes are the seven spir·its of God. That is, Jesus contains the totality of the Spirit. But this is in reference to a particular aspect of God's Spirit: to scrutinise the whole earth (cf Zt.'ch 4:10, where this concept finds its origin; note also Rev 3:1). Interestingly, another parallel with the Johannine tradition can be found in John 20:22, where the risen Christ hreathes on the apostles and imparts to them the Spirit of God. Here, using apocalyptic imagery, something similiar is being said: the risen Jesus, who possesses the Spirit of God, sends that scrutinising Spirit out upon all humanity.

The lamb, the scroll, the seals

55

This image of Jesus as standing (living a resurrected life), as if he had been slaughtered (having been killed in a sacrificial way), as possessing seven horns (the totality of strength and power over creation), and as possessing the seven spirits of God (the totality of the Spirit of God who is sent upon the whole earth) - this image of Jesus is a theological statement that has consequences for the early understanding of Christians about who Jesus was and is: that is, this can be considered to be an early reflection on the concept that was later defined as the Trinity! After the description of the lamb, we are told that he took the scroll from the hand of the one seated on the throne. The whole scene has been about showing the worthiness of the lamb to perform this action.

Reaction to the lamb's action: the worship What is the next movement in the scene? The reaction to the lamb taking the scroll. And as with the opening theophany, the action of the lamb results in worship. This time, the lamb as well as the one seated on the throne is given worship. The living beings and the elders fall down before the lamb. We are told that these two groups hold harps and golden bowls full of incense. Both images are cultic in origin: harps were used by the sons of Asaph in the production of temple music (d 1 Chr 25:1; we note that some of our psalms come from this levitic group - see the first verse of Psalm 50 among others). Incense was important in temple worship as well (d Ex 30:1-10). The text explains the incense as being 'the prayers of the saints' (5:8). This obscure reference finds explanation in the Jewish tradition that Michael and the archangels offered prayers to God on behalf of the people of Israel (d Tob 12:12, 15; 3 Bar 11: 1-2). That is, the elders and the living beings are performing this intermediary role - bringing the needs of the Christians before their God.

56

JESUS IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION

The first hymn sung - the 'new song' as it is referred to in 5:9 - proclaims the worthiness of the lamb to take the scroll and open its seals. By his obedience unto death, the lamb has bought for God people from every tribe and language and people and nation. These terms flow from Daniel 3:-1 (cf Dan 5:19; 6:25) and are often referred to in Revelation (cf 7:9; 13:9; 14:6). They are symbolic of the fact that the lIew people of God, the Christian Church, is made up of people from every grouping of humanity. Reflecting the first praise of God (or doxology) of the book (1 :6), this first hymn concludes by saying that all these people redeemed by Jesus will be 'priests' who sern:- God and that they will reign in the new kingdom established by the actions of the lamb. The seer then sees a new sight in heaven: the elders and living beings are joined by an innumerable host of angels who sing together the second hymn. Again, the subject of this praise is the lamb, Jesus. He is proclaimed worthy to receive attributes usually applied to God alone. Indeed, in 7:12, the same attributes are specified of God (with 'thanksgiving' substituting for 'wealth'). Perhaps 1 Chronicles 29:11-13, praise of the God of Israel, has inspired this list? Finally, the third hymn includes all of creation: not only the heavenly sphere but the earthly sphere echoes the previous praise of the lamb. What is most interesting is that the lamb and God are praised together: this is rather advanced thinking. Jesus and God are seen to be equal. Given what was said above about the lamb possessing the fullness of the Spirit of God, we ha"e here an understanding of the Trinity thilt is remarkable. Indeed, elsewhere in the book of Revelation, this closeness or equality between Cod and the lamb is mentioned: see 7: 10, where scllvation lx'longs to God and the lamb; 21:22, where the temple in thl' 11l'\A/ Jerusalem is the Lord God Almighty and the lamb;

The lamb, the scroll, the seals

57

and 22:1 and 3, in which the throne, the centre of salvation history, is the throne not only of God but also of the lamb. And if the point has not been understood up until this moment, the last verse of chapter five makes it clear. The living beings say 'amen' to this praise of God and the lamb, and the elders (Israel and the Church) bow down and worship both God and the lamb, Jesus. In the monotheistic tradition of Judaism, worship is always reserved for the divinity.

Summation about Jesus The end of this first scene in the heavenly vision of John leaves the reader Ihearer in no doubt as to who Jesus is. Jesus is the long-awaited messiah (the lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David). Furthermore, he is the lamb of Gd: that is, he is the offspring of God and the sacrificial victim whose bloody death brings salvation to all; furthermore, Jesus now lives the resurrected life. The lamb has the fullness of strength and authority (the seven horns) and the fullness of God's Spirit (the seven eyes). And Jesus uses his eyes (the Spirit of God) to scrutinise the earth and know the thoughts and actipns of humankind. Indeed, the 'worship of God and the la'mb together by both the heavenly and earthly spheres brings to a climactic conclusion this revelation of who Jesus the new messiah really is. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus is seen to be equal to God. Jesus the lamb is divine.

The first six seals (6:1-16) In the next two chapters the seer relates what happens when the first six of the st.'\'en seals are broken. Bdore we briefly examine each of these occurrences in order, a few \,vords about the follovving judgments are needed. The 'day of the Lord' is a key wncept in the Old Testament (cf Amos 5:18; Isa 2:21; Zech 1:2). This 'day' was the day of

JESUS IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION judgment, when God's righteous anger would be poured out on evildoers and the good would receive the rewards of their righteousness. In the plagues that follow the opening of the scroll, the judgments on humankind are portrayed as the fulfilment of all the promises concerning the day of the Lord. The first four seals (6:1-8)

The first four seals are based on the prophecies in 1 Zechariah (1 :8-11; 6:2). There we find references to horses of different colours which go out to the four corners of the world. John has altered the purposes of the horses of Zechariah, but the colours remain the same: whitl', red, black, and pale green. In Revelation each of the living creatures cries out 'come' to each horse in turn, and the four horsemen are unleashed to' perform their respective tasks. White is the colour of \'ictory (d 2:17; 3:5). The rider of the white horse holds a bow and wears a Crown, symbols of conquest. Indeed, we are told that 'he came out conquering and to conquer' (6:2). And he is to conquer those opposed to the will of God. Red is the colour of blood, symbolic of strife. The rider of the red horse holds a great sword, with which he is to take away peace from the carth. As a result, great slaughter will follow in the footstcps of this rider. Black is the colour of famine. The rider of the black introduces famine upon the land, so that a mcasure (quart) of wheat or three measures (quarts) of barley en{)ugh for one person to li"e on for a day - will cost a denarius, or one day's labour. Famine increases the price of the staple diet and families will stan'e. What of the wine and oil? Perhaps this is a plea not to restrict these staple foods as well. hor~e

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59

Pale green is a sickly colour. The rider of this horse is named 'Death', for he is pestilence personified. The hosts of the underworld, Hades, follow this rider; and together, rider and followers, are given power to bring famine, pestilence and death by sword (human action) and wild beasts (untamed nature) upon one quarter of the inhabitants of the world. The author of Revelation builds upon Ezekiel 14:21 for these four forms of judgment. This apocalyptic vision of the 'four horsemen of the Apocalypse' has fascinated men and women down through the ages. In these first four plagues, the primordial fears of humanity - famine, pestilence, death by human action or untamed nature - find realisation. Is this vision too bizarre? When we look at television, how often are we confronted by these same occurrences in our contemporary world? The author of the book of Revelation has touched upon consistent evils in our world in his portrayal of the four horsemen. Yet, the previous scene of the lamb and the scroll which began the unfolding of this eschatological drama gives hope and support to faithful people in whatever circumstances they may find themselves. The whole of history is in the control of God and the lamb, and all has a purpose that will turn out for the best in the end. Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza has written on page 61 of her book, Revelati(JII: vision (~f a iI/sf world, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991, that ' ... Christians can recognize, even in the execution of the eschatological plagues over the world, the power and dominion of their Lord'. The fifth seal (6:9~11) The first four seals wefl' presented with a similar structure; with the next two Sl'c1\s, the structure changes and the pace of the narrative s10\'\'5 down. The consistent mention of 'white robes' (as a sign of resurrected new life) links both sections of the vision (cf 6:11; 7:9, 13, 14).

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JESUS IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION

The breaking of the fifth seal results in the presentation of those who have died for Jesus and the gospel message, the martyrs of the Church. They are said to be under the altar in heaven. This is a possible reference to the Jewish cultic practice of throwing some of the blood of sacrificial animals at the base of the altar of sacrifice (d Lev 4:7). Ugo Vanni suggested that the liturgical context of the book of Revelation, the fact that the message is to be read in the liturgical assemblies of the seven churches, allows each community to think of its own members who have been killed for the gospel. Such an idea would allow the hearers/readers to 'own' the vision. The cry from the martyrs echoes the call for justice to the Lord God of the blood of Abel (Gen 4:7). The request of God, 'how long?', is a constant theme in the Old Testament (d Deut 32:43; 2 Kings 9:7; Ps 79:5, 10; Zech 1:12). Vengeance on 'the inhabitants of the world' is asked for. These are the persecutors of God's people in the book of Revelation (d 3:10; 8:13; 17:2-8), the enemies of God's justice, who have brought so many faithful to wrongful death. In response these martyrs are given a white robe, reminiscent of the baptismal robe, a sign of new life. They are told to wait a little longer until all the martyrs who are to die for Jesus have been killed. This is probably a reference to the idea in the apocalyptic traditions of first century CE Judaism that the end of the world would come wh~n the number of martyrs reaches completion (d 4 Ezra 4:35-36, which offers this as the explanation for the need to wait a little longer until the eschaton). Perhaps there is an echo of this tradition in Luke 18:7-8, the parable of the unjust judge? The sixth seal (6:12-17)

With the opening of the sixth seal a recounting of typical phenomena occurs: an earthquake; the dark-

ap~)(alyptic

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ening of the sun; the reddening of the moon; the stars falling to the earth; the sky vanishing; and the uprooting of mountains and islands. (Note Isa 13:10; 34:4; 50:3; Jer 10:22; Ezek 32:7; 38:19; Joel 2:10; 3:4; 4:15; Assumption of Moses 10:4-5; Mk 13:8; Mt 24:29; Lk 17:24; and especially Rev 8:5; 11:13 and 16:18 for further examples of these images in the seer's vision). All this imagery is meant to convey the terrible ending of the world, when the fixed elements of creation revert to chaos. The response to these cataclysmic events is predictable: confusion and fear. The listing of two diverse groups is significant. First, there is mention of the kings (political power), the magnates (economic masters), and generals (military might) - summarised as 'the rich and the powerful'; and, secondly, everyone else -; summarised as 'slave and free' (6:15). Both groups together refer to the whole of humanity. The first group are the oppressors of God's people (cf 18:9-19, where these three groups lament the fall of the evil city of Babylon); the second group are the remaining multitudes of humanity. Both groups together are terrified at the phenomena that accompany the end, and they attempt to avoid the wrath of God and the lamb, which is the occur rente of eschatological judgment. Their cry of anguish echoes Old Testament prophetic texts about the day of the Lord, the day of wrath: Hos 10:8b - 'They shall say to the mountains, cover us and to the hills, fall on us'; Joel 2:11 - 'Truly the day of the Lord is great, terrible indeed - who can endure it?'; Nah 1:6 'Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire' (cf Zeph 1:14-15; 1 Enoch 62:3-5). The Church on earth, the Church in heaven (7:1-17) An interlude now occurs before the breaking of the seventh and final seal. The first part dec1ls with the sealing on

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their foreheads of those members of the Church on earth who are to be preserved from apostasy (the denial of God and the lamb) in the coming cataclysmic events of the day of the Lord. The second part of the interlude relates an other heavenly liturgy of praise and celebration in which the Church in heaven gives glory to God and the lamb.

The Church on earth John relates that four angels have power over the wind and the sea, which are elements of nature (see 14:18 and 16:5, where fire and water have their angels too). They are held back by the command of another angel from releasing these powers of nature to damage the earth, until the faithful have been offered protection in the coming triaL The marking on the forehead with a seal or a mark, indicating ownership, is a recurring theme in the book of Revelation (see 9:4 for another example of the faithful receiving a seal; and see 13:17; 14:9, 11; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4 for references to the mark of the beast or .t\.ntichrist). The number that were sealed is said to be 144000. One thousand is a numerical symbol that refers to a large number (d Mt 18:24) and one hundred and forty-four is twelve times twelve. When we realise that early Christianity saw itself as the continuation of Israel Cd Rom 11:17-24), then the combination of the hvelve tribes and the twelve apostles (d the twenty-four elders) multiplied by one thousand results in a symbolic number that parallels the 'great multitude' in heaven (7:9). Failing to understand the symbolic nature of the text has led many people incorrectly to take this number literally. A final note about the I-t4000: The tribe of Dan is missing and the half tribe of Manasseh, part of Joseph, has bet~n substituted for it. Is this because Dan was traditionally associated with idolatry (d 1 Kings 12:28-29 and Testa~ent of Daniel 5:6, where Daniel is told 'your prince is Satan')?

The lamb, the scroll, the seals

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The Church in heaven After this brief description, a kind of anticipatory vision, of those destined to be saved from among the inhabitants of the earth, John relates his vision of a 'great multitude' standing in heaven before the throne of God (7:9-17). Their number is impossible to count and this suggests the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in heaven (cf Gen 15:5). Indeed, they are from every nation, tribe and people - a stress on the universality of the Church. They are 'standing' and are clothed in 'white robes', a sign of their new resurrected life (cf 3:5; 4:4). The holding of 'palm branches' is a sign of victory (cf 2 Macc 10:7; Testament of Naphtali 5:4). This great multitude cry out in praise to God and the lamb (7:10) and they are then joineCl by the hosts of heaven.who offer their praise of God (7:11-12). In verses 13-17 one of the elders plays the role of the interpreting angel in apocalyptic texts and asks the secr what all this means. John's ignorance calls forth an explanation from the elder to the effect that this great multitude are those who have survived persecution and have 'washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb' (7:14). This wuuld indicate that their sllccessful endurance through suffering ('the great ordeal' - cf Dan 12:1; Mk 13:19; Rev 13:7-10) has been the necessary preparation to gain access to the divine presence in the heavenly throne-room (7: 15a). And they will now receive the rewards of their faithfulness: continual worship of God (7:15b); protection (7:15c, 17ab; cf Ezek 34:23; Ps 23: 1-3); no more hunger, thirst or suffering of any kind (7:16; cf Isa -1-9: 10); and joy rather than sadness for evermore (7:17c; cf Isa 25:8; Jer 31:16).

Concluding thoughts The second and major section of the book of Rcvelation began with John the seer's initial \"isiOT1 of the heavenly

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throne room. The will unfold in the the one seated on twelve elders, and

key players in the divine drama that rest of the book have been identified: the throne, the four living beings, the especially the lamb.

The opening of the scroll that was sealed with seven seals begins the movement in the vision: the first four seals saw the unleashing of negative forces upon the earth: war, famine, death; but this was preceded by the white rider, the positive force who conquers those opposed to the will of the one seated on the throne. With the opening of the fifth and sixth seals, scenes of the victory of the faithful martyrs of the Church are related. Those under the altar, the 144000 and the great multitude impossible to count are various ways of n.:·ferring to those who have already wcm the victory o\'er sin and death in imitation of the lamb - as the seven letters to the seven churches consistently oncouraged the Christians of the Ephesus basin to do. Our world has witnessed much death and destruction as ,1 result of the misguided decisions of humanity'S leaders to pursue myopic goals of economic and political hegemony. War and famine are not unknown even in our own time. The seer is telling it like it is: no punches are being pulled. Humanity sometimes prefers the 'short cut' to a successful outcome, rather than the patient endurance of the saints. This book regards such success as flawed; it is in reality a negativE' outcome. Rather, only through faithfulness to the will of God can true success be meClsured in this life and beyond this world's t'xistence.

The image of Jesus the Lord The gradual r(,velation of whl) Jesus was and is for the Church continued in this section ot the book: we sa,,\' that Jesus:

The lamb, the scroll, the seals • • • • • • • •

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is the Lamb of God shares in God's authority over salvation history is the messiah, the lion of the tribe of Judah and the root of David lives the resurrected life, having been violently put to death possesses the fullness of strength and authority (the seven horns) possesses the fullness of God's Spirit (the seven eyes) knows the thoughts and actions of humankind is worshipped as God's equal. the central player in the whole drama of salvation

Our voices are raised with the multitudes in the heavenly sphere in praise of God and the lamb: 'To the one seated on the throne and to the lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might forever and ever!' (5:13). Let us never forget the power of the }Drayer of praise in our liv~s. When life offers us joy or pain, happiness or sadness, success or difficulty - let our response always be one of praise for our God and God's Son, Jesus our Lord .

.' QUESTIONS 1. Why is the lamb (Jesus) considered worthy to open the scroll that records the destiny of humanity and the world? 2. In what ways have the \'arious images of the one seated on the throne and the lamb spoken to you? How have they impacted on your thinking about God and Jesus? 3. We are told that the martvrs are found beneath the altar in heaven; and each 'church community would recognise their own saints. WlwIl1 do you consider are

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JESUS IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION some of the modern day witnesses for the faith and martyrs? What has impressed you about their words and actions?

4. In the text of Revelation, we find that hymns praising God and the lamb are a part of the life of the Church in heaven. Has the prayer of praise been an integral part of your prayer life? In what ways can you see the importance of this type of prayer for Christians?

3 Trumpets and woes Rev 8:1 - 11:14,

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With the opening of the seventh seal, the next moment in the story of salvation unfolds. We had expected an end; instead, we move forward. Given the spiral structure of the text of Revelation, we realise that the seventh seal contains all that follows in the vision. Later, when the seventh trumpet is blown, then all that remains of salvation history is contained in it. We will see this again when the seventh bowl is poured out. This structure invites us to enter ever deeper into the mystery of God's will for the future of humanity.

The seventh seal - all that follows (8:1-5) The silence in heaven that accompanies the opening of the seventh and last seal is a liturgical silence of anticipation, awaiting the next stage in the unfolding dtama. During this h