Posts Tagged ‘Revelation’

It matters very much whom we worship.

The otherwise diverse biblical witness finds unanimity around this point. We may wish for some wiggle room, some space for our personal preferences to be registered. Alas, Scripture allows none. (more…)

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The Book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature.

This scholarly term places the ‘Vision of John the Seer’ alongside other early Jewish literature that majors on the revelation of events and sequences that would otherwise be inaccessible to human minds. The Greek verb ἀποκαλύπτω means to reveal and lends its meaning and its name to this body of revelatory work. (more…)


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Here in Indianapolis, the sun will set on the year 2016 in ten minutes. And counting.

It has been an extraordinary year, both personally and for our human race.

When it has not driven us to distraction or drawn despair too near for comfort, it has thrown up glimpses of new things and fresh possibilities. It’s an easy thing to say, bereft of historical discipline, but I’ll say it anyway: This has been a year like no other.

Meanwhile, the Bible’s last chapter reminds me that we are neither the first nor perhaps the last to groan for a day with no darkness, a year’s end with no threatening penumbra.

And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:5 ESV)

The seer John’s vision of a life-giving proximity to ‘the Lord God’ that removes mediation is part of a wider vision that is continuous with what we know here and now, but relieved of the Curse that afflicts us.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:1–5 ESV)

All is provided. Nothing lacks.

All is pure and clear, all is life.

No more night.




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The biblical witness privileges the anxiety that we resist.

Taking up a motif that is common to the Old Testament prophets, the Book of Revelation celebrates the demise of ‘Babylon’ by mocking the ease in which she had luxuriated.

Give her (that is, to Babylon) as much torture and grief as the glory and luxury she gave herself. In her heart she boasts, ‘I sit as queen; I am not a widow, and I will never mourn.’ (Revelation 18:7 NIV)

It is often this way when a privileged class of human beings or an erstwhile superpower comes under YHWH’s judgment. Sarcastic irony is deployed against the certainty with which the fallen victim once assumed that his wealth and safety would endure forever. When one gathers such statements together, it appears almost as though presumption itself stands as an indictment again the one who deploys it to ward off the fear of fragility that lesser mortals endure as a feature of everyday life. (more…)

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The end of the image-filled, enigmatic, apocalyptic biblical book of Revelation is replete with urgency.

The text interconnects two matters in order to create this impression. On the one hand, Jesus promises to ‘come’ soon. On the other, by invitation and by direct speech the imagined beneficiaries of his promised arrival agree that his schedule is the appropriate one.

At some length the passage reads as follows:

‘See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.’

I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me; but he said to me, ‘You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!’

And he said to me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.’

‘See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’

Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

‘It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.’ The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:7–20 NRSV)

Christian readers have for centuries been required to wrestle with the twin realities of Jesus’ promises to come soon and the evident sense of delay as twenty centuries have come and gone. Such hermeneutical and indeed existential challenge ought not to be glibly evaded.

Yet what strikes one in this passage today is not that difficult conundrum but rather the mutuality of the coming that is addressed. Jesus promises to come to those who live in the distressed earth whose fate has been addressed in the chapters of this book. Yet John’s visionary text also invites ‘those who are thirsty’ to come to the waters of life that have been introduced early in the chapter.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations …

The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift

The encounter that comes into view is not so much a unilateral arrival as a meeting in Jerusalem Descended.

And then, more obviously, the text has its protagonists virtually cry out in invitation to the one who has promised to come quickly that he should indeed come quickly, as promised!

If the bride is by already developed imagery the bride of this coming one, it is perhaps more surprising that the Spirit—in the Johannine literature necessarily the Spirit of Jesus and of God himself—should also audibly agree with Jesus’ promise.

With such details, the text almost viscerally anticipates Jesus’ presence on the scene. More, it longs for him to appear, to participate, to do his comforting work and to receive a grateful people’s praise.

Unfortunate eschatologies that imagine a whisking away of God’s chosen to another place so that this world might burn have lost their way with the text, opting instead for supra-biblical systems with their own coherence but little organic connection with the book from which they claim to derive.

Instead, Revelation has—with ample biblical precedent—all things becoming new, Jerusalem Descending, a world become what it must be but has heretofore failed ingloriously to become.

Those who have suffered most the deep rift between purpose and promise, on the one hand, and fractured, pained reality on the other, are best poised to lean with anticipation into this imagined future and whisper or shout ‘Come!’ with hoarse throats burned dry by the heat of unholy fire. It is they who lap thirstily the waters of life, finding the relief in its coolness to form the words ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ on refreshed lips before dipping their faces to gulp again.

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The Bible’s ‘apocalyptic literature’ is no easy read.

Composed in periods of deepest affliction, ‘apocalyptic’ gives vent to the assurance that the Lord has not lost control of history and will finally vindicate those suffering human beings who have maintained their loyalty to him at great cost. It is black-and-white in its moral clarity, a dualism that manifests itself in clear definitions of who is on the Lord’s side and who is not.

Our age has little taste for apocalyptic, although a patient and self-critical evaluation of our besetting myopias ought to caution us against dismissing it on the grounds of aesthetic trend-lines and personal preference.

The book of Revelation is perhaps the most well-known example of this strain of biblical expression. Sadly, its character has been much warped in the public eye by popular treatments that border on the paranoid.

Babylon figures as a kind of great world system that in its arrogance defies the Creator and claims the blood of his servants. The reader who identifies with faithful, afflicted suffers is assured that Babylon’s downfall will come suddenly:

When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her. Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry: ‘Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power!

In one hour your doom has come!’ (Revelation 18:9–10 NIV)

With dark, smokey imagery the book of Revelation describes the collapse of Empire Babylon and the grief and wonder that fall upon those who have been complicit in her rapacious economy. When Babylon falls, the whole world staggers under the weight of her loss.

When they see the smoke of her burning, they will exclaim, ‘Was there ever a city like this great city?’ They will throw dust on their heads, and with weeping and mourning cry out:

‘Woe! Woe, O great city, where all who had ships on the sea became rich through her wealth!

In one hour she has been brought to ruin!’ (Revelation 18:18–19 NIV)

Yet Babylon’s downfall is, within the conceptual frame of apocalyptic literature, good news for those little ones who have been tormented by her.

Rejoice over her, O heaven! Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you.

Then a mighty angel picked up a boulder the size of a large millstone and threw it into the sea, and said: ‘With such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again. The music of harpists and musicians, flute players and trumpeters, will never be heard in you again. No workman of any trade will ever be found in you again. The sound of a millstone will never be heard in you again. The light of a lamp will never shine in you again.

The voice of bridegroom and bride will never be heard in you again. Your merchants were the world’s great men. By your magic spell all the nations were led astray.’

In her was found the blood of prophets and of the saints, and of all who have been killed on the earth. (Revelation 18:20–24 NIV)

Ease and privilege with almost predictable effectiveness dull our ears to biblical apocalyptic.

We find it impossible to believe in a World Empire that enriches those who control its levers at the cost of those who will not pledge the allegiance it demands. We consider ourselves too sophisticated for such simplistic, conspiratorial reductions of complex reality.

We do not find the blood of prophets and saints to be worth so much fuss.

We hold tight to our membership cards, with their precise, regularly updated data. Without remembering exactly when we did so, we have chosen sides. We rather like our Babylon.

We belong.

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Although John the Seer reserves pride of place among the human virtues for that costly quality that we unjustly but necessarily abbreviate as ‘perseverance’, he is sure that the future does not flow from human exertion or construction. Rather, it is the doing of the Lord’s own generosity.

The eschaton is, before all else, gift.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Yet its singular and super-human provenance does not for one moment render this, God’s future, antisocial, individualist, or otherwise constrained.

No sooner does the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flood out from the place of deity itself than it courses through the city’s streets. It is the life-source of a most urban reality. What is more, it irrigates the tree of life, now standing inexplicably on both sides of the river, so that its leaves might heal the nations.

Reference to the twelve kinds of fruits is not to be missed. YHWH’s gifted eschaton remains decidely Israelite in its instrumentality. Jesus’ instruction that ‘salvation is of the Jews’ persists, in John’s visionary economy, through and beyond the end of history. Yet it is not in any restricted way for the Jews. Rather, it heals the nations.

No specifying adjectives are any longer licit. No grammatical restrictions, with their formative grip upon the reality we imbibe, are tolerated. The nations stand unconditioned, for the riverine course of YHWH’s provision now drenches every one and all.

Were we to read a few clauses further in, we would stumble upon John’s laconic, pregnant sentence that ‘the curse will be no more’. For now, we swim over our heads into the river that appropriates streets upon which we no longer need to busy ourselves sorting things out, breaking up fights, scratching for bread.

Wet, we dive, we laugh. Faintly, we remember hints at our earlier scrabbling about but, as we come up for air, they fade away. They were not large enough for this wet, resourced, healing current.

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Not for nothing do the terms ‘climax’ and ‘climactic’ figure importantly in multiple spheres of human endeavor.

One learns, in this life, to wait and to anticipate. One learns to long. Life educates one to grasp, white-knuckled, hopes and desires that a more prosaic mindset might counsel one to abandon.

A sober-mindedness stands behind such counter-cultural, stubborn hope. Despite appearances, such unyielding refusal to cave to the way things are is more truthful than the cynical compromises we are urged to make. One sees, out of this stubborness, possiblity that has become invisible to pragmatism’s intoxication. (more…)

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The biblical drama bends an ear to the ground, straining to detect the cry of innocent blood spilt into the soil by callous hands who seem too often to have got away with murder. The biblical anthology’s meta-narrative squirms and frets before the unresolved dilemma of the innocent victim, his voice muffled if not snuffed out, his death too often unobserved. A bullet in the head in some Polish wood, a prisoner’s last breath given up while even his guard is too bored to notice, the hasty grave-mound hoed out in some forgotten field.

Yet the first assassin—a fratricide, no less—learns in the book of Genesis’ Ur-drama that the blood of his murdered brother cries out from the soil into which it has flowed. Flood narrative and Torah ritual prescription both reckon with the enduring value of human life, blood standing in as visual, liquid condensation of the life for which it is essential. One barely gets started in the gospel narratives of Christ’s passion before the impact of innocent blood once more jolts the conscious. (more…)

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This morning’s newspaper chronicles, in a manner of speaking, the movements of kings, princes, and their armies. Such human jockeying for power and the ‘outcry in the streets’, the end of which the psalmist longs to see, sound a constant beat in the rhythm of human affairs.

Yet there is, in the newsprint of a dying print medium, no similar register of dark, demonic forces. One is left to understand that powerful men and women make the world, plowing deep, bloody furrows by their unrelenting ambition. (more…)

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