Monday, April 30, 2012

Revelation 14

     Sitting in a wifi cafe doing a little Bible study:

     This chapter is filled with familiar imagery -- we have the famous 144,000, remember from previous chapters that this is a symbolic number signifying completion (12, 12,000's) they are unique from all other humans and are specially selected. Notice in (2) that there is a sound like harpists playing harps (we knew playing harps would play into the heavenly scene eventually). (8) Babylon is Fallen -- more about this in later chapters - remember that Babylon was the great evil empire of the Old Testament. Babylon sacked and destroyed Jerusalem and carried the nation of Israel into exile. John uses "Babylon" to mean every and all evil empires -- in John's time the evil empire was Rome. Babylon has had many faces, names and configurations over the years. Any empire that forces its will on others or forces people to leave the worship of God is "Babylon" in the biblical sense.
     The "Grapes of Wrath" takes its title from this passage. And, most of us when we read this, hear the strains of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" remember the line "he has trampled on the vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored"? That is from the older translation language of this chapter.
     13 and 14 are part of the funeral liturgy -- blessed are the dead who die in the Lord . . . they will rest from their labor, for their deeds (works) do follow them."
    The earth is being harvested - this image has more to do with the completion. Remember that the Biblical view is that Earth was created by God for a purpose and that purpose is being worked out. When the completion of something has arrived -- the benefit, the harvest is received. Here in 14 the harvest of the purpose of the earth is being gathered by the three angels. The earth, the grapes of wrath, etc. it is harvest time.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Revelation 13

     The Christian faith believes in a Holy Trinity -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In Chapter 13 of Revelation John introduces us to the Unholy trinity -- the Dragon, the Beast out of the sea and the beast out of the earth. The Dragon is Satan, the beast out of the sea represents political power and the beast out of the earth has the power to perform signs and wonders (aka miracles). This unholy trinity is unleashed to overthrow the reign of God. The beast out of the Sea clearly meant Rome (seven hills of Rome = 7 heads/10 horns =10 Caesars) but would easily represent any and all coercive political regimes (Babylon, Alexander, Rome, The Ottomans, the Nazis. . . etc).
     Emperor worship was required by the end of the first century as a symbol of loyalty to Rome. Politicians have used the uniting influence of religion to control and manipulate nations from the beginning of time. Worshiping the cult of the Emperor was considered an act of loyalty by citizens of the Empire. In the later century or so after Revelation was written, people were given a "proof of loyalty" document after performing the ritual and required act of emperor worship. One could not engage in trade or be employed without it. This economic persecution of the church was harsh. The ritual was simple, one went to the temple of the Emperor, burned a pinch of incense and declared "Caesar is Lord". Many Christians refused to do this because "Jesus is Lord" and believed this loyalty to be an act of idolatry. Notice the end of (10) "here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints." Notice that in the verses preceding the saints are being conquered, having war made against them and generally being persecuted by the inhabitants of the earth for failing to prove their loyalty. Sometimes, on the Christian journey, God delivers us from the mouths of lions and frees us from oppression. Sometimes, on the Christian journey, we are called to be Purina Lion chow and have to endure, and even suffer, under oppression. As a resident of the United States, I do not know what that looks like. I have lived in easy religion my entire life and, frankly, what little push back we experience against the Christian faith in the U.S. is pathetically insignificant when compared to what others must endure. In nations and places around the world, Christians are imprisoned, beaten and killed because of their faith and trust in Jesus. We have it easy -- and the easy is one of the reasons our faith is weak.
     In the ancient world slaves were branded with a mark that indicated that the person was owned by another. The book of Revelation plays with the image of "whose mark do you wear" in several places. The Christ followers are marked with a mark and their names are written in the "Lamb's book of life." Now, in 13 we encounter the "mark of the Beast" and the number 666 (in some Greek editions the number is 616). The critical thing is not the number but the purpose the of the mark. The mark identifies one as belonging to the Beast (slave or servant of the beast). The Christian will recognize that we want to bear in ourselves the ensign and mark that identifies us as belonging to Christ -- that mark is the water of baptism. Speculation on who the 666 (616) identifies is a matter of significant conjecture. Part of the problem is that the numerical identification does not work in English. In Hebrew and Greek there are no numerals -- each letter has a corresponding numerical value. Under that system each name has a corresponding number. It is widely believed that the 666 is a reference to Caesar Nero (whose name comes to that number when transliterated into Hebrew).  Another way to look at is to note that the number 7 represents perfect completion (777 would be perfect perfection). The number 6 falls short of perfection and three sixes would be perfect imperfection . . . a way of saying that the beast is a caricature of the Lamb and requires wisdom to understand.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Revelation 12

     Revelation 12-14 shows the great conflict between God and Satan. Christianity is not a dualistic faith -- the powers of good and evil are NOT co-eternal and they are NOT equal. Satan is cast down and will be vanquished.
     Chapter 12 is using imagery that is drawn from ancient mythology as well as the Old Testament. Stories of the birth of gods and their battles with great dragons can be found Greek and Egyptian mythologies. At the heart of the story is the woman (Israel) giving birth to Jesus and Satan's opposition to God's people. The dragon here is portrayed as having seven heads, ten horns and seven crowns. The student of history would easily recognize the thinly veiled reference to Rome. Rome was built on seven hills and by the end of the first century there had been ten emperors. Calling Rome "dragon" when the great dragon is Satan himself is a way of connecting the temporal power (the Roman Empire) with the greater evil empire of the evil one.
     The curious thing in 12 are verses 6 and 14. Notice that the woman (Israel/The Church) flees into the wilderness or escapes into the wilderness when the dragon pursues her. The Wilderness, in biblical understanding, was not a bad or treacherous place. The wilderness is the place between destinations and was the place where God formed and shaped and protected his people. The Old Testament prophets looked with longing on the wilderness stories of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy because in the wilderness the people were near to the presence of God and were fully dependent on God. Only when we come into our inheritance and begin to "settle" in the promised land do we lose sight of this intimacy. In the wilderness God fed his people, protected them with a pillar of fire and cloud. God's presence of imminent and palpable. When we seek the unshaped and unformed (undeveloped) places of life we find that we can cut the tethers that hold us to the mundane details of life. In desert places we find a spiritual awakening and renewal that is not possible otherwise. I pray we all find our wilderness places where God's presence is not rote and routine but intimate and dynamic.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Revelation 11

     The interlude between the 6th and 7th trumpet continues with the testimony of the two witnesses. Two was the minimum number of witnesses needed to convict a person (under Jewish law someone could not be convicted on the word of a single eye witness). The two are representative of the entire church and the testimony of the church to an oppressive and unjust world. Notice that they have prophetic authority. Moses and Elijah were the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. Elijah called fire from heaven and stopped the rain; Moses sent plagues and turned water into blood -- the same authority given to the two witnesses. The city in question (8) is most likely Jerusalem although it could be a wider metaphor for Rome.
     The critical element in this chapter is a reality check. The church is called to live by certain values. These values will clash with the prevalent values of the world around it. We are called by our Lord to stand against sin and injustice. We are called to a different understanding of wealth and power. We stand with the powerless, the broken and the downtrodden. Part of our call is not to pass judgment on the people of the world (that is God's responsibility) but to be a living critique of the values, mores and behaviors of the world around us. This behavior did not make Jesus popular and it will often times have us at odds with the world around us. The church must build bridges into that greater community while at the same time remembering that we follow a different code than that larger community.
     The witnesses suffer persecution are murdered and are denied burial (a grave and shameful treatment in the ancient world) but are finally called to heaven. Some scholars work to identify who these two witness are (or were or will be). Most scholars agree that the two witnesses are symbolic of the church as a whole.
     Notice the second woe is passed -- the third woe is coming very soon (14). The third woe is never recorded in Revelation. It is left hanging as a reminder that the cycle described here will be ongoing until the end of time.
     The seventh trumpet is sounded and the end of chapter 11 is a summary of the rest of the book. The reign of Christ is announced and this leads to worship and the revealing of the Ark of the Covenant (the ancient symbol of God's presence with his people).

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Revelation 10

     Like the interlude between the 6th and 7th seal, Chapters 10 and 11 is an interlude between the 6th and the 7th trumpet. In Chapter 10 we have the renewal of John's call to prophesy. Remember that the role of the prophet was not necessarily to predict the future (that is a very modern understanding) the prophet's role was to speak for God. This speaking for God was called forth-telling (as opposed to foretelling which would be predicting the future). In Biblical times this forth-telling often contained conditional predictions of the future (and some that were unconditional). The prophet's role was to tell what God gave him/her to tell. John is to take the scroll and eat it and then continue to speak the vision God has given him.
    Notice that the "mighty angel" is standing with one foot on the sea and the other on dry land -- his posture encompasses all of creation and what he speaks will be a judgement on all of creation. In Revelation 6:10 the martyrs cried "how long" until they would be avenged. The mighty angel's role is to answer that question and to announce "there will be no more delay, (10:6). The seventh trumpet announces the final judgment.
     The account draws its imagery from Ezekiel 2 where Ezekiel is called to prophecy and is given a scroll with writing on both sides. Here John eats the scroll. It is sweet like honey in his mouth, just as the Word of God is sweet to the believer. For those who belong to God, God's word is never judgment but is always grace and peace and life. However, for the unbeliever the Word of God contains much that challenges behavior, activity and attitudes and can be "difficult to swallow." Will I follow my own will into continued rebellion or will I align my life with the purposes of God. The image of consuming the scroll is a great image for preachers. As a preacher the Word of God must be born in us -- we must consume it, digest it before we can effectively teach and preach it. It is another way of saying that all Christian preaching is incarnational: the word must be born in the life and soul of the preacher before it an be fully realized in the congregation.
    The final analysis is that John must continue his work and to "prophesy about many peoples, nations and languages and kings (10:11)."
     The interlude will continue in chapter 11.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Revelation 9

     We hear the 5th and 6th trumpet and the first of the three woes (8:13). Notice that the destruction outlined in these chapters (seals and trumpets) correspond to the ten plagues visited upon Egypt in Moses' time, only they have been compressed to number only seven. It was believed in the ancient world that evil beings were chained to rivers and in "bottomless" pits. Locusts (3) were identified in biblical times as a sign of judgement from God. These locusts are a bit unusual (7) the the locusts look like horses equipped for battle, human faces long hair (like women's) armored (scales like breastplates) it sounds like many chariots and they have stingers. It is possible that this description is intended to mean the Parthians: the Parthians (9:8) had become famous for their rearward archery: they had retreated up hills mounted on horseback, and when unwary Roman legions had followed them, the Parthians had released a backward hail of arrows, wiping out several legions before the Romans learned not to follow them up hills. The reference to the Parthians seems remote to the modern reader. In Roman times the Parthians were Rome's most feared enemy and were never conquered. The river Euphrates was the eastern boundary of the Roman empire (to the east was the heart of Parthian territory). Many parts of the Roman Empire feared a Parthian invasion and, according to some records, the Jews in the Jewish revolt of AD 67-71 expected the Parthians to show up in support of their battles (which they never did).
     Even with all of the destruction and hardship people did not repent of their wickedness. Life is difficult. Hardship and struggle drive many of us to seek our purpose and our creator. That same hardship and struggle drives others to even more evil behavior. What is it that drives one person to rail against the darkness and curse the one who made us and another to search for the light and grace contained therein?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Revelation 8

     Golden censers and seven trumpets are the dominant images in chapter 8. Notice in verse 1 that when the Lamb opens the seventh seal there is silence in heaven for half an hour. It is, to my recollection, the only place in the Bible where silence is mentioned in heaven. The silence is ominous . . . it presages the great trouble that is to follow. I found the image of the censer, symbolizing the prayers of the saints rising before God, causing rumblings, lightening, thunder and an earthquake to be quite interesting. Apparently the prayers of the Saints have powerful impact.
     The seven trumpets parallel the seven seals (and later the seven bowls). Remember that Revelation was not written to be read like a linear (chronological) story. The story cycles around in a spiral reminding us in a variety of ways that great difficulty and destruction will precede the return of Jesus Christ. Or, to put it another way, the violent way of the world will continue until the world is totally redeemed -- which we don't get to until the end of the book. Seven seals -- aggression, war, famine, pestilence, persecution, cosmic distress -- all deal with attacks on human beings. The seven trumpets -- damaged crops, damaged ocean, damaged rivers and springs, damaged light, locusts like horses, war -- mostly have to do with damage to the earth and its implications. This is not sequential but another telling of the same set of events and experiences. We will find a similar pattern when we get to the seven bowls later in the book.
     We'll spend more time on the last three trumpets in chapter 9 on Monday, suffice it to say that there are great difficulties ahead before things get better. That's what my mother always said to me when I was young. If I came home from school complaining about how my day went my mom would look me in the eye and declare "tougher days are ahead." She could have written this section of Revelation because that is the message from John: tougher days are ahead . . . hang on, dig in, trust God and see it through.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Revelation 7

     At the heart of chapter 7 is a promise that those who belong to God will belong to God forever. No amount of persecution, tribulation, trials or struggles can separate us from our loving creator. St. Paul, in Romans 8, wrote that "nothing else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." So, here in 7, we find the remnant sealed from the people of Israel. 144,000 is 12 x 12,000, remember the number 12 here has "symbolic" rather than actual significance. Also note that beginning in verse 9, that beyond the symbolic inclusion of the tribes of Israel is a "multitude that no one could count -- from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne . . . " There are some groups that get hung up on the 144,000 and completely miss the multitude. The language is intended to be inclusive: nations/tribes/peoples/languages should include someone from everyone.
     The identification of the multitude is another occasion for worship. The multitude (dressed in white with palm branches) is identified as those who have "come out of the great ordeal". I think it would be an error, and many make it, that they were "rescued" from the great ordeal. I believe these are they who were martyred in the great ordeal -- who bore witness to Christ with their life and their death. They have now entered the eternal shelter (15) and the concluding poem echos the last chapter of the book:
    "They will hunger no more, and thirst no more
     the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;
     For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd
     and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
     and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." Revelation 7:16-17

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Revelation 6

My Friend Rev. Davis Matovu wrote this brief summary on chapter 6: The imagery in this chapter is adapted from the angelic horsemen sent by God to patrol the earth in Zechariah 1:8-11 and 6:1-8, though used in a different way. Some scholars suggest that the horsemen portray angels of judgment, others symbols for Christ coming in judgments, and still others simply symbols for judgments in general. Although divine judgments in history are a major OT theme, pagans also recognized and would have understood John’s point; most cultures in history have recognized the existence of divine judgments. Jewish apocalyptic traditions associated some of these judgments, such as war and famine, with the time just preceding the end of the age; cf. Matt 24:6-8.
 Since the casting down of Satan to earth, God’s creation and His people have been targets of Satan’s attacks, and this situation will continue until the second coming of Christ. It is also important to note that writers of apocalypses move backward and forward in human history, and so the disasters recorded in Revelation (seals, trumpets and bowls) should not be squeezed into an artificial chronology. Revelation is an apocalypse and must be read, studied and interpreted by the rules of that genre. Thus John’s account of the seals (and trumpets and bowls) must be read as a working out in detail of the apocalyptic idea that the second coming of Christ will be preceded by periodic historical disasters, which will affect the whole present order in one way or another. 
Back to me: six seals are opened before the scene shifts: After the "four horsemen" of the apocalypse, we encounter this great scene in heaven (beginning at 9). Notice that from under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughters for the word of God are crying out "how long?" How long before before they are avenged. These are the martyrs who have died in the persecution of the church. In the first century alone this group numbered in the thousands of thousands. Notice that they are under the altar, that is in the place where the blood of the sacrifice would flow. This serves as a poignant reminder to those enduring persecution that the times of trial and suffering will come to an end: they may end with the offering of my life or they may end with the coming of Christ but they will end. This is a word of hope to a persecuted people.

Revelation 5

     We continue in heaven and the worship continues: Whereas chapter 4 reveals God the Creator, chapter 5 is all about Christ the Redeemer. We have a scroll that cannot be opened because "no one is worthy".  The scroll was sealed and has so much on it there is writing on both sides (generally scrolls were only written on one side).But then one is revealed who can -- Lion of Judah, Root of David who has conquered (5:5). Lion symbolizes strength and Jesus is a descendent of King David's line (hence Root of David) and through his death and resurrection he has conquered. That is why in (6) he is "a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered with seven horns, seven eyes which are the seven spirits of God sent out into the earth." The horn was a symbol of strength (7 horns is perfect strength) seven eyes is one with perfect vision.
     When the lamb takes the scroll it becomes occasion for more worship and celebration. There is a song sung to the lamb "You are worthy . . ." Apocalyptic literature often plays with paradox and here and throughout note the play with shepherd and lamb -- the shepherd became a lamb, and the slaughtered lamb has become the shepherd.
    Note in verse 11 myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands -- in Hebrew there was no number larger than thousand (no words for million, billion, etc). So anything more than a thousand was thousands of thousands or myriads or sand of the sea shore or stars in the sky (uncountable). The number of angels (11) cannot be counted. Chapter 5 is a prelude -- we celebrate one who can open the scroll and now the seals will be opened.
    Remember that the imagery in Revelation is drawn from the Old Testament: see Daniel 7:9-10 for a similar picture of myriads of angels before the ancient of days.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Revelation 4

     Now the fun begins: remember that as apocalyptic literature the primary focus is on encouragement for those who are suffering great trials and persecution and not necessarily on long term future events. The vision takes us to the throne room of heaven and a glimpse of eternal worship. It is loaded with images and many of the images we find in our hymns and other worship music. There is famous band that takes its name from verse 10 -- they are called "Casting Crowns". The popular hymn, Number 1 in the 1939 hymnal, Holy, Holy, Holy draws heavily from the imagery of this chapter: "casting down their golden crowns (10) around the glassy sea (6)." One of the things I see whenever I read the book of Revelation is the music and poetry that is bound up in the text. It seems that every time we look to heaven there is loud music and praise with pillars shaking, etc.
     The four living creatures: the lion, the ox, the human and the eagle -- the Lion was considered the bravest of animals, the Ox the strongest of creatures, the human the smartest of creatures and the eagle, the swiftest of creatures -- in the four living creatures we have the embodiment of the best of creation. The image of "eyes all around" is the author's way of saying they had total awareness.The 24 elders are representative of the 12 OT tribes and the 12 NT apostles. Notice in the first part of the chapter that God is never described -- throne, precious jewels, rainbows, and lightening -- St. Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 6:16 that "God dwells in unapproachable light."
    I notice that worship, as described here, is surrender to God. The creatures and the elders cast their crowns before the throne (surrendering their earned authority to God). Worship is acknowledging that God is God and we are not. To put it another way, if we acknowledge that we are creatures (created beings), and we acknowledge that God is the creator, the only fit act of worship is to surrender our perceived independence (perhaps an illusion after all) to the one who made us. Or, to put it in a more negative light: all sin is rebellion against our standing as created beings. The ultimate form of this is expressed in Paradise Lost when Milton put these words in Lucifer's mouth: "better to reign in hell than serve in heaven." Worship is an act of surrender to the one who made us, who redeemed us, to sustains us with the Holy Spirit.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Revelation 3

     Letters to three more Asia Minor churches: Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.
     Sardis was a very prosperous city that specialized in wool. It was particularly known for the whiteness of its wool (the reference in 3:4 to soiled cloths is a nod to this part of their history). Sardis was also known for its defenses. The city was never taken by force. But on two separate occasions in their history the city was taken by stealth in the dark of night -- the reference to "like a thief in the night" is a play on this part of their history. The harsh criticism on Sardis is that they have the appearance of life but are in fact dead -- it is time to wake up! There is a remnant (those who have not soiled their cloths) it is time to join them.
\     Philadelphia (city of brotherly love) was a center of wine making and the prominent god of this city was Dionysus. The city sat on a major earthquake fault and was nearly destroyed in AD17 by a major earthquake. The after shocks in the first century were a source of constant worry for the residents. 3:12 -- I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God -- is a likely reference to their feeling of insecurity and instability (pillars being a symbol of strength and stability). It is worth noting that there is no rebuke to the church at Philadelphia and no call to repentance. There is simply a reminder to hold fast, be faithful, redemption is near.
     Laodicea was a prosperous city and was well known for its medicines, especially an eye ointment (the reference in 3:18 to the salve to anoint your eyes is a play on that history). The city was also famous for its bluish black wool that the letter contrasts at the end of 3:18 with a call to "white robes". Laodicea was located between two sources of water. One was a volcanic fed hot spring where people would travel for bathing and medicinal purposes. On the other hill side was a deep spring fed lake where the water was cold year round. The Romans, thinking walking to these places for the cold or for the hot water was too much work, built aqueducts to carry the cold water from one side and the very hot water from the other into the center of town. When the cold arrived it had warmed and when the hot arrived it had cooled. The water in Laodicea was neither hot nor cold and was not fit for drinking nor bathing. The call to be hot or cold and not lukewarm is a direct play on this part of Laodicean history. Jesus tells them that he is standing at the door knocking (isn't that always true?). All we need do is open the door and he will come in. Jesus will not open the door. He will only enter when we invite him in.