Thursday, November 06, 2008
The church in John’s day is not unlike the church in many countries of the world today, and throughout history. Christians exist in empires who unashamedly trumpet their authority to rule the world as they see fit. When the church is not being actively persecuted, it is marginalized. They simply don’t matter. It is this church – the suffering and insignificant church of the first century – who first receives John’s vision of Jesus, “the ruler of kings on earth.”
To these churches, John transcribes seven letters with one message. Some are sterner than others, but the thrust is the same. Here’s the letter to Thyatira:
I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. Only hold fast what you have until I come. The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. And I will give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’There’s recognition of their works and perseverance, and stern warnings against their complacency and compromise. The church is implored to stick it out under pain just a little longer until the Lord comes. The church that conquers will be given authority over the very nations where it now suffers – to smash them into bits.
The number seven is the number of creation. It is used in scripture to imply “fullness” and “completion”, and so I think it no stretch whatsoever to understand this urgent message sent to “seven churches” as meant for the entire church. If we mean to take John’s unmistakable urgency seriously, then let it be clear - these letters are to us. It is we who must persevere amidst empires who are glad to run the world in rebellion against God and oppression of man. It is we who are tempted to compromise and collude with the destructive idolatry that we find ourselves in. It is we who are urged to conquer, and dash the nations into pieces with a rod of iron.
So, what are we waiting for? Time to strap on our swords and crush our enemies for the kingdom of God! But not so fast. Unless we are to make the same mistake as the Jews in Jesus’ day, we need to be careful to understand that the ruler of kings on earth whom we serve has radically redefined what it means to conquer and wield authority, and given us very counter-intuitive stories about how his kingdom comes.
The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.And again:
He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.”And again:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.Lest we have any doubt of the means to the end, John gives us a vivid glimpse into the heavenly reality behind the world. He sees a scroll of the purposes of God sealed up, with none worthy to take and reveal. It is then announced that the “lion” of the tribe of Judah has conquered and is worthy. But John sees not a lion, but a slaughtered lamb standing there. And then he hears the chorus:
Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.The lamb has conquered by being slaughtered. Jesus disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, triumphing over them by his cross. The church in John’s day conquered the greatest empire in the world has ever seen, dashing its power to pieces by their patient and loving endurance to suffering and death and their willingness to forgive their enemies. And we are called to do likewise with an urgency that cannot be exaggerated.
Our king is coming, even as we speak.
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Sunday, November 02, 2008
Revelation has an unmistakable air of both urgency and timelessness to it. Everything mentioned is said to be immanent. John is writing about “the things that must soon take place” and we are exhorted to heed his words “for the time is near.” The reader gets this sense that he will hardly have time to hear the message before it all comes to pass. And yet the message is as timeless and all encompassing as its source. The alpha and omega, the one who was, is, and is to come, tells John to “write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.”
This must surely challenge some common evangelical attitudes towards Revelation. On the one hand, the book is thought to be written for people a long time ago – these seven churches in the early days. On the other hand, the book is thought to be about the things that will happen at the end of time, and of use largely in preparing us in the event that we are living in the last days. Yet the book itself seems to make very little distinction between what was, what is, and what is to come. It is, after all, the same Jesus who is the center of all these things.
The book begins with a stunning vision of Jesus himself, speaking to John:
I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”Depending on who you ask, there are anywhere from 300 to 600 specific Old Testament allusions in the 403 verses of Revelation. Let’s see what looking for some does for our understanding of the passage above.
Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.
A loud voice like a trumpet
Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins.
I saw seven golden lampstands,
And he said to me, “What do you see?” I said, “I see, and behold, a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it, and seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it. And there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.” “These seven are the eyes of the Lord, which range through the whole earth. These are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth.”
And in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man
Behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him
Clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest
I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your sash on him, and will commit your authority to his hand. And he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah.
The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire
As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; His throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came out from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.
His feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace
His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the sound of a multitude.
His voice was like the roar of many waters
Ah, the thunder of many peoples; they thunder like the thundering of the sea! Ah, the roar of nations; they roar like the roaring of mighty waters!
From his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
His face was like the sun shining in full strength
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not”
When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.”
I am the first and the last
Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.”
The living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore
But the Lord is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King.
I have the keys of Death and Hades
Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death? O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting?
OK, so they’re not all Old Testament. But it does amaze me how so much is evoked by symbols which first seemed merely strange. John looks at the man Jesus, and sees the fulfillment of all of Israel’s hopes.
It is Jesus who declares to Jacob the message of the prophets. It is him who holds together the faithful of Israel in his hands. He is the one worthy to be presented to the ancient of days. In his authority he holds Jerusalem in his hands like a father. When we look on his face, we see nothing less than the ineffable glory of the invisible God. He is the shining man Daniel saw crossing the river, while in captivity in Babylon. His voice drowns out the clamor of nations who assert their own power to rule the Earth. From his mouth comes the very word of God, piercing the heart and soul of man. In him the fullness of the glory of God lives, and shines brighter than we can look at. And yet he is compassionate, and elevates us with him in his glory. Jesus is to be seen as nothing less than the God who was and is – by his resurrection he proves that he has life in himself, and will endure forever just as we know God does. He is the conqueror of Death, and the plunderer of Hades who have hitherto held his people in captivity.
Behold, the man.
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