Who is Jesus in John’s Apocalypse?

Who is Jesus in John’s Apocalypse?[1]

This is the second essay I wrote during my Study Leave.

Theses

The Book of Revelation is Christocentric.

The indicatives of John’s Christology have ethical imperatives for Christ followers.

Aims

To explore briefly some of the major Christological themes.

To note how John sees the ethical impact of his Christology.

To provide basic teaching material for one of The Forum discussions.

A question of method

David E. Aune argues that the Christology of Revelation cannot be discussed in the same way as the metaphysical issues of the Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries. Theological claims are imbedded in the narratives and descriptions, and their meaning cannot be separated from their context.[2]

That context has intertextual and intratextual relationships: John draws heavily on the OT, and while he puts his own stamp on the formation of meaning, the intention is for readers and hearers to relate the one to the other to understand that meaning; while what can be drawn from one narrative in the book may be more or less consistent with what can be drawn from another, we need to carry in our minds pictures and descriptions from one section of Revelation to the other in such a way that they mutually inform that meaning – eg, titles and descriptions used in opening vision are also used in the seven letters.

The method of analysis, then, is similar to that of the way we approach the Gospels and Acts, but the genre of Apocalyptic must alert us to a greater fluidity of meaning in symbols and stories than we might expect in the Gospels and Acts.

Given that John’s intention is not only to inform his hearers about God, Christ and the Kingdom, but also to transform their attitudes and behaviour (as in the calls to repent), it must be supposed that we are able to draw behaviour-shaping meaning from the text: narrative, theology and praxis must be held together. So, when we ask, ‘Who is Jesus in John’s Apocalypse?’ and find that he is ‘the slaughtered Lamb,’ we must ask what that means and how, in the narrative, followers of the slaughtered Lamb behave, for that will shape how we are to behave.

Richard Bauckham,[3] in his analysis of the person and action of Jesus as seen in the Apocalypse, clusters meaning round particular themes that emerge from the narrative: messianic war, eschatological exodus and witness. These emerging themes help us to glimpse something of the author’s intended outcomes in shaping the lives of his hearers. Later we will draw on Bauckham’s analysis of John’s Christology, and bear in mind Aune’s caution regarding narrative context.

Grand-OpeningA Grand Opening

The start of any book gives an insight to its contents, and before we even reach the first vision, John sets the scene for us, not least in his description of Jesus. Three titles trip off his pen one after the other, each of which, on its own, would tell us a great deal about Jesus. Together, they blow a theological fuse. (They can also be linked to Bauckham’s three themes.) In his epistolary address John writes: χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη ἀπὸ … Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ὁ μάρτυς, ὁ πιστός, ὁ πρωτότοκος τῶν νεκρῶν καὶ ὁ ἄρχων τῶν βασιλέων τῆς γῆς (1:4f)

‘Faithful witness’ takes us to the Gospels and the trial of Jesus before Pilate. There, rather than denying who he is and accommodating himself to the power of Rome, Jesus gives true testimony, and pays the price. This picture of Jesus as ‘faithful unto death’ sets the tone for John’s hearers, that they too will be called upon to bear witness before other Pilates, and might be expected to face the same fate.

But for Jesus, and for John’s hearers, death through testimony will not be the end. Jesus is ‘the firstborn of the dead,’ whose faithfulness has been vindicated by resurrection. That he is the ‘firstborn’ gives hope to those who suffer a similar fate.

Before the third title, John might have written, ‘spoiler alert!’ Ahead of the catastrophes and cosmic battles, he gives away the ending, for Jesus is identified as the ‘ruler of the kings of the earth.’ Neither Pilate nor the Emperor, nor any of Rome’s vassal rulers, will keep Jesus from fulfilling his destiny as God’s appointed King. All will bow before the one who will be called, ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords (19:16).’

It is staggering that this language is being used of one who was known as the ‘carpenter’s son’ from Nazareth in Galilee. The contrast could hardly be greater between the origin and destiny of Jesus. John is seeking to help us perceive reality with new eyes through his ‘revelation.’

Jesus and God

the-heavenly-throneThe storyline of the Book of Revelation, in simplistic form, is that Jesus Christ brings the Kingdom of God to its completion in new heavens and new earth. All other narrative threads find their place within this giant canvas, and thus we might view the book as a whole as Christocentric.

Who is Jesus to be able to bring this to pass?

The worship of Jesus

After an epistolary prologue, the main body of Revelation begins with a Christophany in which John first hears then sees ὅμοιον υἱὸν ἀνθρώπου (1:13). At this point he is clearly drawing on the Danielic visions of one who is the agent of God, who brings God’s Kingdom to its fullness. However, John’s description of this ‘one like a son of man’ reads more like a description of the Ancient of Days! Further, this voice says to John: ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ πρῶτος καὶ ὁ ἔσχατος καὶ ὁ ζῶν, καὶ ἐγενόμην νεκρὸς καὶ ἰδοὺ ζῶν εἰμι εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων καὶ ἔχω τὰς κλεῖς τοῦ θανάτου καὶ τοῦ ᾅδου (1:17f.). This echoes what John hears of the voice of God just verses earlier: Ἐγώ εἰμι τὸ ἄλφα καὶ τὸ ὦ, λέγει κύριος ὁ θεός, ὁ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἦν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος, ὁ παντοκράτωρ (1:8.). ‘First and Last’ is laid side by side with ‘Alpha and Omega’ (and both of these are used of Jesus in 22:13); ‘is, was and coming’ is paralleled by ‘living, was dead and alive for evermore.’ And so, as early as possible in his writing of this story, John is placing Jesus firmly within divinity, worthy to receive his obeisance. One of the most striking features of Revelation is the worship that is given to Jesus, not instead of God, but along with God. And this from strict a Jewish monotheist for whom the worship of what is not God is idolatry.

The worthiness of Jesus to open the scroll

This picture of the worship of Jesus is filled out substantially in the Throne Room scenes of chapters 4 and 5. After the dramatic worship of the whole of creation to the one who sits on the throne, the story focuses on the scroll in God’s right hand. Taking, opening, reading and bringing to pass the contents of this scroll requires someone who is a worthy agent of the one on the throne, and no-one is found. That is, no-one except ὁ λέων ὁ ἐκ τῆς φυλῆς Ἰούδα, ἡ ῥίζα Δαυίδ (5:5), a description drawing on Messianic traditions in the OT. This lion of a Messiah, however, turns out to be ἀρνίον ἑστηκὸς ὡς ἐσφαγμένον ἔχων κέρατα ἑπτὰ καὶ ὀφθαλμοὺς ἑπτὰ οἵ εἰσιν τὰ [ἑπτὰ] πνεύματα τοῦ θεοῦ ἀπεσταλμένοι εἰς πᾶσαν τὴν γῆν (5:6). We will draw more fully later on the description of this Lamb as having been slaughtered, but for the moment we must note the complete power this Lamb has because of its seven horns, and its all seeing nature having seven eyes, which are described as the seven spirits of God. This Lamb, while Messianic in nature, and thus acting on behalf of the People of God, has the qualities of the divine.

This becomes even clearer when we discover what it is that makes the Lamb worthy to open the seals of the scroll. Messianic deliverance turns out to have been accomplished through the Lamb having been slaughtered: ἄξιος εἶ λαβεῖν τὸ βιβλίον καὶ ἀνοῖξαι τὰς σφραγῖδας αὐτοῦ, ὅτι ἐσφάγης καὶ ἠγόρασας τῷ θεῷ ἐν τῷ αἵματί σου ἐκ πάσης φυλῆς καὶ γλώσσης καὶ λαοῦ καὶ ἔθνους καὶ ἐποίησας αὐτοὺς τῷ θεῷ ἡμῶν βασιλείαν καὶ ἱερεῖς, καὶ βασιλεύσουσιν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς (5:9f). These words are sung by the living creatures, representing creation, and the twenty four elders, representing the People of God, in a new song of worship to the Lamb. Myriads of angels join in this song, addressing their worship τῷ καθημένῳ ἐπὶ τῷ θρόνῳ καὶ τῷ ἀρνίῳ (5:13). The Lamb is entitled to receive this worship because he is linked to the one who sits on the throne.

There are two occasions later in the book when John is reprimanded for wanting to give worship to angelic messengers (19:10 and 22:8f). They, and he, are aware that worship is reserved for God, yet time and time again in Revelation, worship is given to the Lamb with the one who sits on the throne. The Lamb shares in that divinity, the glory of which compels us to fall at his feet in worship.

It is this sharing in the nature of the divine and the Messianic victorious sacrifice as the slaughtered Lamb that enables Jesus to bring God’s Kingdom to completion. John’s ‘high Christology’ means, as Bauckham puts it, ‘what Christ does, God does.’[4]

But how does Jesus achieve his purpose of bringing the Kingdom to fulfilment? How does he accomplish this eschatological climax?

What Jesus does

jesus lamb lionIf, from our starting point of being people estranged from God living in a world in which sin is endemic and the enemies of God seem to have the upper hand, we think of what would be needed for the fullness of the Kingdom to come, we might theologise in this way: we need, individually and collectively, deliverance from sin; this good news needs to be shared across the world so that as many as possible would hear of it and respond; the enemies of God need to be faced head on and decisively defeated. In his dramatic narrative, this is the picture John paints for us, and he does so in ways that bald theological statements cannot match. There is allusion, vivid imagery, gut wrenching descriptions about defeat and victory, but by the end of the story we see the slaughtered Lamb and his followers winning through to enjoy the fruits of God’s new creation. [5]

Eschatological Exodus

From the time of Moses onwards, the Exodus of Israel from Egypt has been a paradigm for interpreting God’s saving action in the world. It involved deliverance from slavery, with the blood of the Passover Lamb marking out those who will be ransomed from that enslavement. Revelation is replete with Exodus symbolism, but none is more powerful than John’s recording of the song of heaven in chapter 5 (quoted above). Jesus is pictured as the Passover Lamb that has been slaughtered in order to effect this ransom from enslavement. He has conquered, not by overcoming his enemies by violence in response to their violence towards him, but by the surrendering of his life, the shedding of his blood. This Lamb died – or, rather, was slaughtered. However, in John’s vision this Lamb is now standing rather than lying. The one who was dead is now alive, his victory in death having been vindicated by resurrection.

But where this use of the Exodus model most departs from the original is that, rather than deliverance being limited to ethnic Israel, it is a multitude ἐκ πάσης φυλῆς καὶ γλώσσης καὶ λαοῦ καὶ ἔθνους (5:9) who are ransomed, a phrase that occurs several times in different forms throughout the book. By his sacrificial death he has created a multi-ethnic ‘kingdom.’

In the second half of the book, ‘There are also … references to:

  • Sinai-like disturbances of nature (11:19 et al);
  • Wilderness as a place of refuge (12:6);
  • Messiah/Lamb as deliverer from the slavery of Empire (passim);
  • Plagues similar to those in Egypt (15:1ff);
  • Those victorious over the beast standing beside the sea (15:2)
  • Victory song of Moses and the Lamb (15:3);
  • Lack of repentance (hardening of heart) after the plagues (16:9 & 11);
  • False signs performed (16:14).

… John is wanting his readers to pick up on the Exodus traditions and they will then understand, ‘John is telling us the Exodus story in a new way!’ He must be prophesying that we will have a new Exodus experience that will deliver us and lead us to the God’s promised land.’[6]

Jesus is, at one and the same time, the Messianic deliverer like Moses (or David), and the Passover Lamb. Deliverance for John’s hearers has been achieved!

Witness

witnessbox_cropWitness is a forensic term: its setting is the courtroom. The author of Revelation has a concern for truth and falsehood: what will stand and what will fall before the eschatological Judge? We have already seen how John places Jesus as ‘Faithful Witness’ at the head of his book, and this theme recurs in a variety of ways. Jesus is described thus: καὶ ἐκ τοῦ στόματος αὐτοῦ ῥομφαία δίστομος ὀξεῖα ἐκπορευομένη (1:16). His testimony is sharp and true whether he is speaking to his followers (2:12) or to the enemies of God (19:15, 21, where the rider on the white horse is called πιστὸς καὶ ἀληθινός).

One of the controverted terms is Revelation is τὴν μαρτυρίαν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (1:2) or simply τὴν μαρτυρίαν Ἰησοῦ (1:9 and elsewhere). Is it the testimony Jesus gave, or Christians bearing witness to Jesus? In 1:2, it appears in the context of Jesus passing on from God this revelation that John receives (in turn to pass on) and so is ‘the testimony Jesus gave.’ In the remaining occurrences (1:9, 12:17, 19:10 twice, 20:4) it is conceivable that it is the witness Christians give to others about Jesus, but in my opinion, because of the precedent of 1:2 and the wider context of ‘witness’ in Revelation, it rather reflects the idea of the belief Christians hold because of the testimony Jesus himself has given to them. ‘Whatever else he might appear to be to his followers, Jesus Christ is first and foremost God’s prime witness. Every other characterization must be interpreted in that light, and not the other way around.’[7]

This is in keeping with the tenor of John’s own comments about his and his hearers’ sufferings for their testimony. He intentionally draws on this Christological action in order to prepare and strengthen his hearers for the testing times to come when they will bear witness before the tribunal. The two witnesses of chapter 11 and the 144,000 in the martyr army all give their lives (or potentially so) for the testimony that Jesus has given to them. And implicitly he poses the question for his listeners: will they follow in the steps of the Faithful Witness, or will lies come from their mouths?

Messianic war

Deliverance and witness in a hostile context point us to the third of Bauckham’s clusters of ideas: messianic war. Deliverance necessitates a victorious deliverer; witnessing under threat requires enemies. Bauckham has argued convincingly that Revelation can be viewed as a ‘Christian War Scroll.’[8] Drawing once again on OT Messianism as the background, John paints Jesus as the deliverer, who defeats the enemies of God. He is identified as the one who has triumphed (5:5); he raises an army (7:1ff); much of the second part of the book records his encounters with the enemy. Riding at the head of his cavalry, resplendent on his white steed, wearing many crowns, he takes the armies of heaven into battle (19:11ff). This is the ‘king of kings and lord of lords,’ who strikes down the nations, rules them with an iron sceptre and treads the winepress of God’s wrath. But this deliverer is not like those who enforce the brutality of the pax Romana. He wears a garment dipped in (his own) blood; his sharp sword comes from his mouth and is the word of his testimony. He triumphs by word and sacrifice. His followers do the same.

While we can examine Bauckham’s three themes separately to some degree, they come together in the stories of Revelation. Those who experience God’s deliverance are those who accept the testimony of Jesus. They, in turn, bear testimony to the nations as part of the martyr army, whose warriors, giving themselves, and perhaps their lives, for this testimony, gain victory in the cosmic battle with the enemies of God under the leadership of ‘Faithful and True.’ John’s Christology of titles, descriptions and actions, draws in Christ followers to the actions of witness and warring.

Jesus and non-violence

There is no doubt that, over the centuries, the war-like nature of John’s Jesus and the plethora of militaristic images have caused many problems for interpreters of Revelation. Indeed, some would cast it from the canon altogether for this reason. But we have received it as part of Christian scripture and therefore have a responsibility to wrestle with its meaning rather than discard it. Does the Jesus of the Apocalypse reflect the Jesus of the Gospels?

Mark Bredin[9] has examined pictures that John uses (Faithful Witness, Pierced Servant, Son of Man, Lamb, Rider on the White Horse), and argues that John’s Jesus is consonant with the Jesus of the Gospels. John takes the violent militaristic traditions that he has received and gives them an ironic twist forcing hearers to reassess the traditions. This warring Jesus is a non-violent Jesus. He triumphs through sacrifice and his warriors must follow suit.[10]

Conclusion

John’s Christology comes to us in diverse forms: titles, descriptions and action stories. The images are dramatic and fluid, sometimes appearing to clash but in reality informing one another. The Christology of the early sections finds echoes in later sections, and the colours of his imagery for Christ come progressively into greater relief filling out our picture of Jesus.

The Christology of Revelation is so ‘high’ that there are times we do not know if it is God or Christ speaking/acting, and the two are so closely associated that we are forced to the conclusion that John sees Jesus as sharing in the divine nature of God. Indeed, where God appears in the story of Revelation, it is often to highlight the person and action of Christ the Lamb. The overarching story is about how Christ defeats the enemies of God, forms a universal People of God and receives his Bride, the New Jerusalem. The effect of this is to make Jesus the central character of the book. Revelation is Christocentric.

However, it seems clear that John’s purpose is not simply to tell us about Jesus, but also to help us respond to Jesus – as, indeed, he himself responds. We might say that the indicatives of John’s Christology lead us to ethical/spiritual imperatives, particularly in three areas of action.

  • Worship: as John describes his falling at Jesus feet and the praise of all the heavenly beings to the Lamb, he is conveying to his hearers that the only appropriate response to Jesus is to worship him as we worship God – and that we must not give worship to any angelic being or human Emperor. This worship takes the form of offering prayer, as the martyrs do, and praise, as all creation does.
  • Witness: Jesus is the True and Faithful Witness, who gave testimony that led to sacrificial death and resurrection; John is on Patmos for following this path of faithful witness and the martyr army, likewise, witness and give themselves sacrificially unto death. The creation of a universal People of God requires that Christ-followers of every age bear faithful witness to ‘the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.’ We are all to be in the martyr army, witnesses of the slaughtered Lamb.
  • Warring: while death in our culture is often interpreted as defeat, albeit sometimes heroic defeat, the deaths of the Lamb and his martyr army are, in fact, the means by which they triumph. John interprets the militaristic pictures of Christ through the lens of his death, the shedding of his own blood, his resurrection and the sword of the word of God that comes from his mouth. Simplistic correspondence of the military images has often led the followers of Jesus to take up arms against those who are seen as the enemies of God. What John intends for us is to resist the enemies of God with testimony and without violence, and do so through the Spirit who has gone out into all the earth. We are to speak and lay our bodies on the line. While it may appear to some that this leads only to defeat, it will be the same kind of defeat that Jesus suffered at the hands of Rome – a ‘defeat’ in death that leads to the victory of resurrection and new creation.

John, thus, presents his Christology in order to transform the behaviour of his hearers in such a way that they become more like Christ in a culture in which the powers of Rome might crush them for doing so. He helps them to see that this is not, in fact, the road to defeat, but the path to victory.

Select Bibliography

Aune, David E., 2005, ‘Stories of Jesus in the Apocalypse of John,’ in Longenecker, Richard N. (ed), Contours of Christology in the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Bauckham, Richard J., 1993a, The Theology of the Book of Revelation. NTT. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bauckham, Richard J., 1993b, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Beale, G. K., 1999, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text. NIGTC Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Blount, Brian K., 2005, Can I get a Witness?, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Blount, Brian K., 2009, Revelation: A Commentary. NTL. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.

Bredin, Mark, 2003, Jesus, Revolutionary of Peace: A Nonviolent Christology in the Book of Revelation, Carlisle: Paternoster Press.

Osborne, Grant R., 2002, Revelation. BECNT. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

[1] The Christology of Revelation is more than a monograph in itself, so this essay is illustrative than exhaustive.

[2] Aune, 2005, 292f.

[3] Bauckham, 1993a, chapters 3 and 4.

[4] Bauckham, 1993a, 63.

[5] The following headings are taken from Bauckham, 1993a, chapter 4, though not addressed in the same order. The themes flow into one another.

[6] From my essay on the scroll.

[7] Blount, 2005, 47.

[8] Bauckham, 1993b, Chapter 8.

[9] Bredin, 2003, part three.

[10] Bredin, 2003, 213f.

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What Story does the Scroll tell?

What Story does the Scroll tell?

This is the first of two essays that I wrote during my Study Leave on Revelation.

Theses

The theses of this essay are:

  • the theme of ‘scroll’ may help us to understand the shape of the Book of Revelation?
  • that Revelation 11:19 to the end of the book, apart from the epistolary ending, tells the story of the scroll of 5:1 and 10:2.

Aims

  • To have a better grasp of how Revelation fits together.
  • To assist in the development of a narrative way of teaching the Book of Revelation.

Introduction

rev - unity or compositRevelation is a book of many complexities: the symbolism is complex, and perhaps some of it will never be fully understood by hearers in our time; the structure is complex, if structure there be – there is certainly no universally agreed structure, and nothing even like consensus beyond sections such as the letters to the seven churches. However, the more one reads (or hears) the book, the more evident are the various indicators in the text that things are moving on, such as the occasions when John writes about being ‘in the spirit.’

Another complexity is the identification of genre, or rather genres, of the book. Its author claims that it is an apocalypse, a letter and a prophecy, and it bears the hallmarks of all of these genres: connections can be made with Jewish apocalyptic writings; there is an epistolary beginning and ending, with a series of letters in the main body of the text; there are prophetic commendations and denunciations with accompanying blessings and warnings for the future, and it is steeped in the Old Testament, especially the prophetic traditions of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. However, one of the things we grasp in reading it over again and again, and which comes across clearly in the ‘narrative commentaries’ of scholars such as Barr and Ressiguie, is that Revelation has an unfolding story. Whatever disputes there are about ‘editions’ and ‘compilations,’ its threads and themes drive the narrative forward and hold the book together. Titles of Jesus, descriptions of phenomena that accompany events, and the like, recur throughout the book in such a way as to encourage us to refer back and forth, linking them in order to interpret them. Revelation is capable of being understood as a unity when we see it as an unfolding story with various episodes.

The remainder of this essay will focus on one of these themes, ‘scroll,’ to explore how it adds structure and shape to the book, and to seek to understand something of its significance for understanding the message of the whole book. Attention will be given to the following questions:

  • Where do instances of ‘scroll’ occur?
  • To what do these refer?
  • What are the contents of each ‘scroll’ referred to?
  • How do the instances of ‘scroll’ guide us in relation to the shape of the book?

john scrollThe Prophet’s Call – John’s Scroll

1:11  ὃ βλέπεις γράψον εἰς βιβλίον καὶ πέμψον ταῖς ἑπτὰ ἐκκλησίαις, εἰς Ἔφεσον καὶ εἰς Σμύρναν καὶ εἰς Πέργαμον καὶ εἰς Θυάτειρα καὶ εἰς Σάρδεις καὶ εἰς Φιλαδέλφειαν καὶ εἰς Λαοδίκειαν.

In the spirit on the Lord’s Day on the island of Patmos, John hears behind him a loud voice like a trumpet speaking to him. The voice tells him to write in a scroll what he sees and to send it to the seven churches named. When he turns to identify to whom the voice belongs, he falls at the speaker’s feet in a state of collapse, for from the description it at first appears that this is the ‘Ancient of Days,’ and who can live on seeing the face of God. But in fact the words of the one speaking make it clear it is the crucified, risen and glorified Jesus who is speaking and whose comforting arms reach out to take away his fear. John is to see and to bear witness to what he sees as the agent of Jesus himself by writing it in a scroll. This first instance of scroll and its context appear to be the writer’s prophetic call. Akin to prophets of old, like Isaiah, he has a visionary encounter with the divine and is given specific instruction about what to do: write what you see and communicate it.

That this instance of scroll refers to the whole book, including what has already been written in its introduction, is the most natural interpretation of the word. Write what you see (1:11), and he has already told us that he is bearing witness to all that he has seen (1:2). For the sake of clarity we will call what is encompassed in the whole book ‘John’s scroll.’

papyrus-sealed-with-seven-seals_1246685_inlIn the Throne Room – God’s Scroll

5:1. Καὶ εἶδον ἐπὶ τὴν δεξιὰν τοῦ καθημένου ἐπὶ τοῦ θρόνου βιβλίον γεγραμμένον ἔσωθεν καὶ ὄπισθεν κατεσφραγισμένον σφραγῖσιν ἑπτά.

In total, from 5:1 – 5:9, there are seven uses of ‘scroll,’ all using the same term and referring to the same writing.

Many interpreters of Revelation see the Throne Room scenes of chapters four and five as a crux point of the book. It has, literally, brilliant descriptions of the worship of heaven to the one sitting on the throne and to the slaughtered lamb (creation and redemption), reflecting how gatherings for the worship of God and the Lamb are foundational to the ecclesial experience of the seven (and all) churches. Of themselves, these scenes give us a rich theology of worship, creation and redemption. But how do they move the story along? What is their purpose in context? The brilliance of the picture of the one who sits on the throne heightens our expectation and the importance of the scene, but when all creation has given hymnic glory, the focus, like a zoom lens, is drawn to the scroll in God’s right hand. If this scroll is in this right hand, it must be of crucial importance to the hearers. And the importance is heightened even more when none is found worthy to break its seals. Are we to go without hearing and understanding what it contains? When the tears are rolling down John’s face, the tension for the first hearers would have been palpable. But the Lion/Lamb, the triumphant slaughtered one, is found worthy to break the seals of the scroll and relay its contents because he has died and redeemed by his death. The zoom lens follows the Lamb to the throne and then catches in full screen the handing over of the scroll from God to the Lamb.

While the main characters in these throne room scenes are God and the Lamb, it seems to me that the main narrative driver is the appearance of the scroll: its heightened importance being in the hand of God and the sole worthiness of the triumphant slaughtered lamb to unseal and see it, and then presumably to read (or have read) its contents to those gathered, all point to the scroll as a central and crucial theme in the book as a whole. Both the actions of opening and seeing are important here: the implication is that only when the lamb unseals the scroll and looks at its contents will these then be revealed to those within the vision, and thus to John’s hearers, who are now waiting with bated breath to know what it contains.

What is this scroll? There are several descriptors that help us understand its nature. It is held in the right hand of the one who sits on the throne, so ‘it presumably expresses the will of the God who holds it.’ Its seven seals underscore ‘the gravity of the contents.’[1] It has writing within and on the back, so it is a long, perhaps all encompassing, tale. Whoever opens and reads it must be a worthy ambassador of the one who sits on the throne, presenting it with the authority of the Almighty. As yet we have no clue to the scroll’s contents but there is no doubting its importance. For the sake of clarity we will call this ‘God’s scroll.’

From now on, the narrative of John’s scroll is dominated, in one way or another, by the content of God’s Scroll. But what are its contents? We must start first in the negative, understanding what they are not.

To identify what the scroll contains we need to be aware of how scrolls and seals work. Seals were used both to keep the contents of a scroll secret and to convey that these contents carry the weight of the authority of the one sending the scroll. Wax seals would often bear the impression of a writer’s signet ring. That this scroll has seven seals, the number of completion/perfection, indicates that the contents of the scroll are top secret, only to be revealed by the authorised agent of the Divine One in whose right hand it was held. To be able to read any of the contents, all the seals must be broken.

The implications of this for understanding the flow of Revelation are that the various series of sevens, beginning with the seven seals and ending, I believe, with the seven trumpets, do not and cannot convey the contents of God’s scroll. They are, in some way, preparatory, for the scroll is not fully open.

God’s Scroll and the ‘Cycles of Doom.’

If ‘scroll’ is a theme that will help us to understand the shape of Revelation, we need to ask how the contents of the various cycles of sevens up to the seven trumpets, what I will call the ‘cycles of doom,’[2] relate to God’s Scroll, and prepare us for the revelation of the contents of God’s Scroll.

On hearing the dramatic events of the cycles of doom, what would John’s audience think? I believe they would grasp that these cycles describe the way things are. They relate the experience of so many across the Mediterranean at that time (and indeed, of our own time): the clash of empires, war, famine, disease, catastrophes like the eruption of Vesuvius that rained fire and brimstone on cities, utterly destroying them and their populations. These descriptions were very recognisable to John’s hearers because they were part of recent and present experience (as they are in our own time in different manifestations). The presence of Roman Legions and the oppression of the Pax Romana were constant reminders of the way things are. The question is, what is God going to do about it? While through the intercalations in the cycles about the faithful witness of the Lamb, the martyr army and the two witnesses informs hearers that ultimate victory is assured, how is it going to come about and what is the metanarrative that conveys it? I believe the answers to these questions are found through understanding the significance of the ‘little scroll’ of 10:2ff.

mighty angelAnother Mighty Angel – the ‘Little Scroll’

10:1 – 2 Καὶ εἶδον ἄλλον ἄγγελον ἰσχυρὸν καταβαίνοντα ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ περιβεβλημένον νεφέλην, καὶ ἡ ἶρις ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς αὐτοῦ καὶ τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ ὡς ὁ ἥλιος καὶ οἱ πόδες αὐτοῦ ὡς στῦλοι πυρός, καὶ ἔχων ἐν τῇ χειρὶ αὐτοῦ βιβλαρίδιον ἠνεῳγμένον. καὶ ἔθηκεν τὸν πόδα αὐτοῦ τὸν δεξιὸν ἐπὶ τῆς θαλάσσης, τὸν δὲ εὐώνυμον ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς….

10:8 Καὶ ἡ φωνὴ ἣν ἤκουσα ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ πάλιν λαλοῦσαν μετ’ ἐμοῦ καὶ λέγουσαν· ὕπαγε λάβε τὸ βιβλίον τὸ ἠνεῳγμένον ἐν τῇ χειρὶ τοῦ ἀγγέλου τοῦ ἑστῶτος ἐπὶ τῆς θαλάσσης καὶ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς.

In total, from 10:2 – 10:10, there are four instances of words for ‘scroll’: 10:2, 8, 9 and 10. Three of them (vv2, 9, 10) are βιβλαρίδιον, a (very) diminutive form that we have not yet come across, and one (v8) is βιβλίον, the same term as we have already encountered. It is unclear exactly what difference John is signalling by the use of this alternative term, ‘little scroll,’ but what is clear from the comparison of 10:2 and 10:8 is that he is using the different terms to refer to the same writing, made particularly clear by the parallel description of the angel who is holding it. So, what scroll is this?

There are indications in the text that John intends us to identify this scroll with the scroll unsealed by the lamb, this Lamb who is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. The mighty angel roars with the voice of a lion, and thus is speaking on behalf of the Lion/Lamb. The voice from heaven, Jesus himself, speaks to John again (10:11): καὶ λέγουσίν μοι· δεῖ σε πάλιν προφητεῦσαι ἐπὶ λαοῖς καὶ ἔθνεσιν καὶ γλώσσαις καὶ βασιλεῦσιν πολλοῖς, an echo and variation on ἐκ πάσης φυλῆς καὶ γλώσσης καὶ λαοῦ καὶ ἔθνους καὶ ἐποίησας αὐτοὺς τῷ θεῷ ἡμῶν βασιλείαν καὶ ἱερεῖς (5:9f), for whom the Lamb was slaughtered and in which context God’s scroll is first encountered.

If there is shared identity between the scrolls of 5:1 and 10:2, or at least a correlation between them, do we as yet have any idea about the contents? There is a clue in 10:7: ἀλλ’ ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις τῆς φωνῆς τοῦ ἑβδόμου ἀγγέλου, ὅταν μέλλῃ σαλπίζειν, καὶ ἐτελέσθη τὸ μυστήριον τοῦ θεοῦ, ὡς εὐηγγέλισεν τοὺς ἑαυτοῦ δούλους τοὺς προφήτας. This scroll in the hand of the mighty angel will unveil God’s gospel mystery in the days when the seventh trumpet is heard.

There are three important details in the encounters between John and Jesus, and John and the angel in 10:8-11 that will help us understand the significance of the little scroll and what its contents are. Firstly, John is instructed by the voice of Jesus to go and take the scroll. In this echo of his first commission, John’s prophetic task as the agent of Jesus is reaffirmed. Secondly, he is to eat the little scroll.[3] In other words, and in the tradition of the prophets, he is to make this message a part of himself. It will now shape who he is and what he does as he prophesies once more to the nations. Importantly, for understanding the contents of the scroll, it also means that, rather than hearing them directly from Jesus, we will now hear them mediated through John’s personality and visionary experience. Thirdly, the experience of eating this scroll was, for John, sweet and sour. The message he will convey is one of blessing and judgment.

It is also arguable that it is the scroll of 5:1 and 10:2 which is referred to in 1:1: Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἣν ἔδωκεν αὐτῷ ὁ θεὸς δεῖξαι τοῖς δούλοις αὐτοῦ ἃ δεῖ γενέσθαι ἐν τάχει, καὶ ἐσήμανεν ἀποστείλας διὰ τοῦ ἀγγέλου αὐτοῦ τῷ δούλῳ αὐτοῦ Ἰωάννῃ, as God gives this revelation to Jesus, who gives it to an angel, who gives it to John, who gives it to his listeners. This is exactly the order in which we perceive the handling of the scroll in chapter ten.

Where, then, do these contents begin? Several commentators see 11:18 as the end of a major section in the book and that 11:19 (or 12:1, but 11:19 makes better sense) begins a new series of visionary experiences. The ‘sevens’ that dominated the book so far do not recur until the seven bowls of 15:1. I believe that 11:19 is the beginning of the contents of the scroll/little scroll – God’s Scroll, and that these convey a metanarrative of salvation that transforms and redeems ‘the way things are’ from the earlier cycles of doom. As John experienced, this will be a sweet and sour metanarrative, because it will include judgment, with the defeat and destruction of the forces of evil, as well as salvation, with the deliverance, victory and reigning of the Lamb’s martyr army.

If there is indeed a metanarrative from 11:19 onwards, what are its major elements?

new creationThe Story of God’s Scroll – Cosmic Battles and New Creation

The story on the surface of this long section is about cosmic battles, the fall of worldly empire and God’s new creation, but when we analyse the elements of it there are at least two stories also being told that are below the surface. (For a résumé of the entire narrative in tentative sections and sub-sections see Appendix 1.)

The first story is that of the Exodus. While there are important Patriarchal stories that predate the Exodus, it was such a formative and foundational experience for Israel that, ever after, her salvific experiences of God were frequently described in Exodus language.

It has often been noted that Revelation is replete with obvious and less obvious allusions to the traditions of the Exodus story (and later models of Exodus), but nowhere more so than in this section of the book. It begins with opening up the Temple (11:19, and again 15:5 where ‘tent’ is included) to focus on the Ark of the Covenant, a telling symbol of God’s faithfulness and covenant obligations during the Exodus and pilgrimage to the ‘promised land.’ There are also early references to:

  • Sinai-like disturbances of nature (11:19 et al);
  • Wilderness as a place of refuge (12:6);
  • Messiah/Lamb as deliverer from the slavery of Empire (passim);
  • Plagues similar to those in Egypt (15:1ff);
  • Those victorious over the beast standing beside the sea (15:2)
  • Victory song of Moses and the Lamb (15:3);
  • Lack of repentance (hardening of heart) after the plagues (16:9 & 11);
  • False signs performed (16:14).

Within the early part of this scroll’s story, John is wanting his readers to pick up on the Exodus traditions and they will then understand, ‘John is telling us the Exodus story in a new way! He must be prophesying that we will have a new Exodus experience that will deliver us and lead us to God’s promised land.’

The second story is that of Rome. It seems that the red dragon with seven heads/crowns and ten horns, is a symbol of Empire, but in the hearers context specifically Roman Empire. There are many other cryptic references to Rome, her armies and her Emperors, such as:

  • The beast from the sea with ten horns and seven heads (13:1);
  • The mortal wound in one of the heads that is miraculously healed (13:3);
  • The worship of the beast (passim);
  • The second beast from the land (13:11);
  • The mark and number of the beast, 666 (13:18);
  • References to Babylon, the conqueror of Jerusalem (passim);
  • References to colours and wealth (17:4);
  • References to persecution and threat of persecution (passim);
  • Seven heads as seven hills (17:9).

With Roman fleets on the water and armies on the land all across the Mediterranean, the worship of the Emperor cult on the rise, the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, and the geographical and commercial references in the text, John’s hearers could not fail to pick up on the fact that the (present) enemies of God were to be found in the forces and structures of Rome. John’s hearers, seeing their own experiences reflected in this story, would take from it that while at present they suffered slavery, oppression, even death at the hands of Rome, it’s Empire would collapse (as all Empires will) and, as part of the Lamb’s army, they will be victorious.

Drawing, then, from Exodus traditions and contextualising them within the story of Rome, John gives comfort, hope and the assurance of victory to his listeners who are being faithful to the worship of God and the Lamb.

The climax to these stories comes in the parallel episodes at the end: the fall and destruction of Babylon/Rome, the mother of prostitutes dressed in purple and scarlet; the coming down from heaven of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, the Bride of the Lamb dressed in white ready for her wedding. We discover, through John’s vision, a hope not simply of ‘promised land’ but of New Creation, the place where God will fully and finally dwell with his people, and to which the nations will come and be welcome.

If we ask if John could have told these stories in a more straightforward way, the answer would be yes, but we need to remember the political situation of his time, and that this apocalyptic genre was a more congenial way for him to tell them.

Invitations and warnings – instances of ‘scroll’ at the end of Revelation

22:9-10 καὶ λέγει μοι· ὅρα μή· σύνδουλός σού εἰμι καὶ τῶν ἀδελφῶν σου τῶν προφητῶν καὶ τῶν τηρούντων τοὺς λόγους τοῦ βιβλίου τούτου· τῷ θεῷ προσκύνησον. Καὶ λέγει μοι· μὴ σφραγίσῃς τοὺς λόγους τῆς προφητείας τοῦ βιβλίου τούτου, ὁ καιρὸς γὰρ ἐγγύς ἐστιν.

In total, in 20:7 – 20, our ‘usual’ word for ‘scroll’ occurs seven times, mostly in the form τοὺς λόγους τῆς προφητείας τοῦ βιβλίου τούτου.

As in chapter five, we find ‘scroll’ occurs seven times. There, it raised our awareness of the importance of this theme for understanding the story of the purposes of God; here, it draws that story to a conclusion, but not without first drawing us to respond to its invitation, ‘Come,’ and warning us not to add to or subtract from its contents. Both John’s Scroll and God’s Scroll have come to a climactic end with the hope of New Jerusalem and the promise, ‘I am coming soon.’

Conclusion

To return to the two theses: are they proved?

Having examined the way in which John uses the theme of ‘scroll,’ particularly as ‘God’s Scroll,’ I believe that there is no doubt it can be seen as an important marker of narrative structure. Its occurrences in chapter five raise our awareness of its importance with succeeding chapters preparing the way for the scroll’s complete unsealing; its use in chapter ten alerts us to the coming contents of God’s Scroll (however long we may perceive them); chapter twenty-two, with its seven uses parallel to chapter five, draw the story to a conclusion.

Given all the discussions there are around the structure of Revelation, had it been certain that 11:19 on relates the contents of God’s Scroll, it would have become a consensus view long before now. However, I do believe that what has been laid out in this essay at least makes the view plausible, and that it gives to us a tool to help readers and hearers make sense of a text that can be very difficult to understand in our times.

Appendix 1

Section Subdivision Narrative resumé
11:19 – 13:18

 

Dragons and Beasts – & a Messiah with his army of martyrs

11:19 – 12:6 ·       Heavenly Temple opened & ark of the covenant seen; earthly disturbances

·       woman clothed with the sun appears – about to give birth to child (Messiah)

·       Dragon pursues woman and child but they are snatched up to God’s throne

12:7 – 17 ·       War in heaven – Michael and angels fight the dragon and his angels, who are thrown down from heaven to earth

·       Hymn of rejoicing at defeat of dragon

·       Dragon continues to pursue woman, and, when she is rescued, then her other children

13:1 – 10 ·       Beast, with 7 heads, 10 horns & crowns, comes from the sea and is given power by the dragon

·       One head mortally wounded and recovers

·       People worship beast and dragon

·       Beast slanders God and blasphemes, waging war and winning against God’s holy people from across the world

·       God’s people need patient endurance – they will suffer

13:11 – 18 ·       Second beast comes from the earth: horns like lamb, voice like dragon

·       This beast exercised authority of first beast, doing signs, having image of first beast set up and causing it to speak

·       All who failed to worship the image were killed

·       People were given a mark of this beast on right hands or foreheads

·       Number of beast is 666

14:1 – 5 ·       Lamb standing on Mt Zion with 144,000

·       They have the name of the Lamb and his Father on their foreheads

·       144,000 sing a new song before the throne

·       They are virgins and have not defiled themselves, they are holy and follow the Lamb wherever he goes

Eternal Gospel declared and the fall of Babylon the Great 14:6 – 13 ·       First Angel proclaims the eternal gospel to all on earth

·       Appeals to all to fear God, give him glory and worship the creator, for the hour of his judgment has come

·       Second angel declares that Babylon the Great has fallen

·       Third angel declares that all who worship the beast and receive its mark will drink the cup of the wrath of God

·       Calls for patient endurance of God’s people

·       John called to write, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’

14:14 – 20 ·       One like a son of man called by and angel to reap the harvest of the earth

·       Another angel called (by another angel!) to harvest the earth’s grapes

·       The grapes are thrown in the winepress of God’s wrath and the blood (red grape juice) was as high as a horse’s bridle for 1600 stadia

15:1 – 16:21 ·       Sign in heaven: seven angels with seven last plagues

·       Those victorious over the beast stand by the sea like glass singing the song of Moses and the Lamb

·       Heavenly temple – ie the tabernacle of the covenant law – opened

·       Seven angels with plagues come out of the temple

·       One of the four living creatures gives the seven angels bowls full of God’s wrath

·       Six angels pour out their bowls, but people refuse to repent

·       Seventh angel pours contents of bowl into the air – voice: it is done

·       Earthly disturbances including worst ever earthquake, splitting the great city into three

·       Babylon the Great is given the cup of the fury of God’s wrath

·       People curse God for the plague of hail

17:1 – 18 ·       John is carried in spirit to see the state of Babylon the Great, mother of prostitutes

·       This woman sitting on red beast clothed with finery drinking abominable things, and drunk on the blood of God’s people

·       Mystery of woman and beast interpreted to John

·       Angel declares that the ten kings will wage war on the Lamb, but the Lamb and his followers will win

·       The beast and the kings will turn on the prostitute

18:1 – 24 ·       Another angel comes down from heaven and declares that Babylon the Great has fallen

·       God’s people warned to come out of Babylon and not share in her sins

·       Kings who were her partners will stand far away and watch her destruction

·       Hymn of rejoicing sung at the finality of Babylon’s doom

·       Angel prophesies the violence and finality of the city’s doom, and her on-going desolation

Victory of the Lamb and the judgment of his enemies 19:1 – 10 ·       Great multitude in heaven shout three Hallelujahs

·       Voice calls to praise God

·       Multitude cry out Hallelujah again, rejoice in the reign of God and that the wedding of the Lamb has come

·       Lamb’s bride dressed in fine linen – righteous acts of God’s people

·       Blessed are those invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb

19:11 – 21 ·       White horse, with rider called Faithful and True, wages war with justice

·       His robe is dipped in blood; called Word of God

·       Armies of heaven follow him, dressed in fine linen

·       Called king of kings and lord of lords

·       He will rule and tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty

·       Angel invites birds to come to God’s great supper, and get ready to feast on the carrion of battle

·       Beast and kings wage war on the rider and his army

·       Beast and kings are defeated, beast and false prophet thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulphur

·       The rest were killed with the sword coming from the mouth of the rider and the birds feast on their flesh

20:1 – 15 ·       Angel seizes and binds the dragon, throws him into the abyss and seals it for 1000 years

·       John sees thrones on which were seated those given authority to judge

·       John see the souls of those beheaded as witnesses for Jesus – they come to life and reign with him for 1000 years – first resurrection

·       After 1000 years, Satan is released for one last battle against God’s people, but fire devoured them as they besieged his city

·       The devil joins the beast and false prophet in the lake of burning sulphur

·       John sees Great White Throne before which all the dead stand

·       Records of their lives are opened and they are judged accordingly

·       The Scroll of Life is also opened and those not found written in it are thrown into the lake of fire

·       Death and Hades are also thrown into the lake of fire

·       The lake of fire is the second death

Bride of the Lamb, the Holy City, New Jerusalem, New Creation 21:1 – 8 ·       John sees new heaven and new earth – first passed away

·       Holy City, New Jerusalem comes down from heaven

·       God dwells with people and will be their God – death all like it are no more

·       One on the throne will make everything new

·       All who thirst will freely receive the water of life

·       The victorious will inherit all this and God will be their God

·       Others (described) will be consigned to the lake of fire, the second death

21:9 – 22:5 ·       John is taken to see the bride of the Lamb, the Holy City, New Jerusalem

·       It shone with the glory of God, high walls, 12 gates with names of the 12 tribes of Israel, each made of a single pearl

·       Laid out foursquare, cube-like, 12 foundations of walls bear the names of the apostles of the Lamb and are decorated with 12 gemstones

·       Streets of city are pure gold

·       No temple – God is ever present, giving the light of glory to it

·       Nations will walk by its light and kings will come to give honour

·       Gates always open, nations will be brought into the city, but nothing impure will enter it

·       River of the water of life will flow from the throne of God and the Lamb

·       The tree of life will grow by the river, produce monthly crops and bring healing to the nations

·       No sun or moon for God will give them light and they will reign for ever

For Completion

 

Scroll’s ending: invitation, blessings and warnings

22:6 – 21 ·       Angel (Jesus) tells John of the trustworthiness of what he has heard

·       Angel (Jesus) says ‘I am coming soon’ and that those who keep the words of the prophecy are blessed

·       John told not to seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll

·       Promise of coming soon with reward

·       Blessed are those who wash their robes – access to tree of life

·       Invitation to come and receive the water of life

·       Warning not to add or subtract from the prophetic words of the scroll

·       Assurance of coming soon and prayer for that coming

Appendix 2

Other instances of ‘scroll’ in the body of the text.

There are other instances of ‘scroll’ in the body of the text, but none of them refer either to John’s scroll or God’s scroll. On the face of it, they have little or no structural significance but we mention them here for the sake of completeness.

6:14 καὶ ὁ οὐρανὸς ἀπεχωρίσθη ὡς βιβλίον ἑλισσόμενον καὶ πᾶν ὄρος καὶ νῆσος ἐκ τῶν τόπων αὐτῶν ἐκινήθησαν.

Here, as part of the cosmic disturbance of the opening of the sixth seal, the heavens disappear like a scroll being rolled up. It is a dramatic metaphor for the speed with which things will change.

20:12 καὶ εἶδον τοὺς νεκρούς, τοὺς μεγάλους καὶ τοὺς μικρούς, ἑστῶτας ἐνώπιον τοῦ θρόνου. καὶ βιβλία ἠνοίχθησαν, καὶ ἄλλο βιβλίον ἠνοίχθη, ὅ ἐστιν τῆς ζωῆς, καὶ ἐκρίθησαν οἱ νεκροὶ ἐκ τῶν γεγραμμένων ἐν τοῖς βιβλίοις κατὰ τὰ ἔργα αὐτῶν.

When the raised dead face the one sitting on the great white throne, scrolls are opened in order to judge their deeds. We might call these ‘the ledgers of life.’ But then another scroll is opened, called ‘the scroll of life’, which appears to be a list of the citizens of the New Jerusalem. The term ‘scroll of life’ also occurs at 3:5, 13:8, 17:8 and 20:15.

While germane to the details of the plot of the story, none of these instances appear to be major structural narrative markers.

Select Bibliography

Commentaries on Revelation

Barr, David L., Tales of the End: A Narrative Commentary on the Book of Revelation, Salem: Polebridge Press, 2nd ed. 2012.

Beale, G. K., The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC), Grand Rapids/Carlisle: Eerdmans/Paternoster, 1999.

Blount, Brian K. Revelation: A Commentary. NTL. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009.

Boxall, Ian. The Revelation of St. John. BNTC. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2006.

Koester, Craig R., Revelation: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, New Haven/ London: Yale University Press, 2014.

Osborne, Grant R. Revelation. BECNT. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Reddish, Mitchell G., Revelation, Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001.

Resseguie, James L. The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

Roloff, Jürgen, Revelation: A Continental Commentary, Minnneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth, Revelation: Vision of a Just World, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1991.

Smalley, Stephen S. The Revelation to John: A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005.

Other works

Bauckham, Richard J. The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993

Beale, G. K., John’s Use of the Old Testament, London/New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 1998.

Collins, John J., The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2ed 1998.

deSilva, David A., Seeing Things John’s Way: The Rhetoric of the Book of Revelation, Louisville: WJKP, 2009.

Gallusz, Laszlo, The Throne Motif in the Book of Revelation, London/New York: Bloombury T&T Clark 2014.

Gorman, Michael J., Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb Into the New Creation, Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011.

Koester, Craig R., Revelation and the End of All Things, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.

Moyise, Steve, The Old Testament in the Book of Revelation, London/New York: Bloombury T&T Clark 1995.

[1] Koester (2014) 383.

[2] This is not to deny that within these cycles there is grace and patience to give people time to repent, but the dominant theme is that of disaster.

[3] Perhaps this is the reason that John uses the diminutive!

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Coming Studies on Revelation – The Time is Near!

   
 

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Read Revelation because…

whyIn response to a blog on Revelation, one of my friends observed that early on in my series (perhaps even better beforehand) it would be good to help people answer the question, ‘Why read this book at all?’ Many people mistakenly believe that it is either a complicated irrelevant fantasy, or a prophecy that gives minute details of the ‘end times’ that are upon us, such as the beliefs expressed in the Left Behind series.

He’s absolutely right, of course, and I immediately wanted to answer, ‘We need to encourage people to study Revelation because…’ – and there were a whole lot of ‘becauses!’ This blog is not meant to be comprehensive, but it gives some reasons and illustrations of why grappling with Revelation will prove to be a very positive experience for our Christian life and growth.

because

  • Because of what it tells us about God. There are descriptions of the majesty of God that make us bow down in wonder and worship to God the Creator. If we take them seriously they will transform our worship. But there are also more challenging pictures of who God is and what God does – how are they to shape our understanding of a God whose essence is love?
  • Because of what it tells us about Jesus. We can learn lots about Jesus from the vast range of titles and descriptions John uses to convey his significance, but none more than the recurring theme of the victorious Slaughtered Lamb.
  • Because of how it describes the church. One of the reasons I love the music of the Taizé Community in France is because its songs and Scripture readings reflect many of the languages of those who worship God around the world. The church is the Bride of the Lamb, purchased from every tribe, tongue, people and nation, and this will shape how we see our sisters and brothers across the globe.
  • Because of the way it challenges and encourages the churches. Apocalyptic is the literature of resistance in times of threat and oppression. It demands that those who have been lax in their allegiance to Jesus repent and change their ways; it assures those who do that they will overcome and receive a special reward from Jesus himself; it gives hope to those whose suffering is unto death, that they will find both justice and eternal life.
  • dragon winsBecause it tells us about the mission of the church. ‘No matter how hard you work, no matter how right you are, sometimes the dragon wins.’ That was the theme of President Tom Gillespie’s message at my DMin graduation in 2004, taken from Ezekiel and Revelation. The battle we face in the mission of the church is not always successful. The dragon may defeat us for a time, but ultimately the Lamb wins, and the sacrificial witness of the church is crucial to that victory.
  • Because of how it challenges our concept of Empire and the use of Power. We either belong to the Empire of Babylon (in those days Rome, in our day a variety of entities) or the Kingdom of God. There is no in-between. Babylon enslaves, extorts, oppresses – and Babylon will fall, or rather, has fallen. Power in the Kingdom of God is expressed in self-giving, as in the sacrifice of the Slaughtered Lamb and his army of martyrs.
  • Because of the hope of justice and judgment. Yes, the Lamb and his followers may suffer injustice, but Revelation gives us hope that there is a day of reckoning coming, when injustices will be made right and those who perpetrated them will experience the judgment of God – what that judgment looks like is debated because of the nature of the symbolic language used, but judgment there is, and it brings vindication to the witness of the church.
  • tears-wipe-awayBecause of the picture of New Creation and New Jerusalem. The echoes of Eden in the city that comes from heaven to earth tell us that God is bringing to fulfilment the purpose that was planned from the very beginning. From a garden to a garden city, the picture of God’s Kingdom is one of activity and satisfaction in life in the light of the ever-present God. It is creation transformed. Death shall be no more and God shall wipe away all tears.

We could, without doubt, add more ‘becauses’ to this list, but there is more than enough above to justify any attempt to grapple with the meaning and implications of the Book of Revelation. It brims with good things, and it speaks in a loud voice to issues of our time. Eat it, digest it, make it part of you and your journey with God and the Slaughtered Lamb will be all the richer.

If you want to explore further how Revelation speaks to us, you could do no better than read Richard J. Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation. NTT. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. I receive no reward, except knowing that you will grow in understanding and make progress on the path of discipleship.

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Finding my voice

It is impossible to engage with a process of study like this without one’s personality and circumstances affecting the way in which one reflects, shaping what one thinks is being learned that will address the present time. Before proceeding to preach from Revelation there is a need to be self-aware and note some of these personal data: data about self, culture and historical situation.

the gospelI was born into a Christian family within the group of Churches calling themselves “Open Brethren.” The Brethren movement began in the 19th Century partly as a reaction against the theology and institutionalism of, particularly, the Anglican churches. While some of its Assemblies took on a more inward looking form, many of the congregations saw themselves in the context of God’s mission in the world – the Sunday evening service was often known as a “Gospel Meeting” where a message of sin and redemption was preached, and the buildings were often known as “Gospel Halls,” to reflect the belief that the group meeting in the building was both founded on and declared the Gospel.

lstWhile my spiritual journey has taken me away from these roots, there is much from this background that I have carried with me, and early days are always very formative. I am still a ‘Gospel’ (Good News) person. A theological degree from the London School of Theology (formerly London Bible College) gave me a broader understanding of the Christian faith and Biblical studies, and a Master of Theology degree through Aberdeen University gave me the opportunity to rationalise why I had departed from the theological framework of most Brethren people, known as Dispensationalism, towards a more Reformed position. Seen within the context of studying the Apocalypse, Dispensationalism interprets sections of the book in a very literal way, and distinguishes between a Jewish earthly people of God and a Christian heavenly people of God. To depart from a particular theological framework in favour of a different framework is one thing; to make that a thoroughgoing paradigm shift is another, and it is especially hard to do in reading Revelation without a prolonged period of study and reflection.

waco_18188Now, in my 63rd year looking ahead to retirement, and having preached many series from both Old and New Testaments, I am asking myself the question, ‘Where shall I turn in Scripture to bring a word from the Lord to our times?’ Some months ago, as an aside, I said that Revelation was on my ‘retirement bucket list’ because I believe that it has a message of warning and hope that will speak to us. I have never preached a series on it before. There is, I believe, a danger that we leave this strange and awesome book to those who may crudely be referred to as ‘nutters,’ and who, because of the charismatic power they may have over others, use this book as an instrument of oppression, self-referencing some of the salvific symbolism. If I am to preach from this majestic book, then I need to know more about it and hear what the Spirit is saying to the Churches through it. But I also need to know about me, and the times in which we live.

check-box-296589_640So I come to this study of Revelation as:

  • a Christian whose formative years were spent in a sociologically mature, and declining, version of the emerging church of a previous century, shaped by Dispensationalism;
  • a student of the Bible, who believes that Dispensationalism is not a viable theological framework, but who has questions about how Revelation might help to shape a Biblical theology;
  • a Chaplain to young people, concerned that the Church should seek to engage with the culture of their enthusiastic and activist generation;
  • a preacher who believes that the Scriptures as the Word of God will speak to this and every age;
  • a Parish Minister of the Church of Scotland, concerned with the decline of the Church and its lack of will, ability and success in reaching out to transform the world around us for the Kingdom of God;
  • a minister of mature years and limited future opportunities for preaching, asking myself what God might want me share in the pressing times in which we live, believing that Revelation has a part to play in that legacy;
  • a Christian who has lived all his life within Western Christianity, but who has become more aware of the global shift in the numbers of confessing Christians, from North/West to South;
  • a follower of Jesus who has had very little by way of personal persecution for my faith, but who is increasingly aware of sisters and brothers in other parts of the world being martyred for their faith, often, though not exclusively, within an Islamic context;
  • a ‘first world’ consumer, whose purchasing power, within the globalisation of economics, may contribute to the real or virtual enslavement of workers within the ‘two-thirds’ world;
  • a citizen of the former Imperial power that is the UK, with a recently elected right of centre Westminster government, which to many seems less concerned about the poor than the rich;
  • a resident of Scotland, which, though deeply divided, has recently rejected independence, but which also elected to the Westminster Parliament 56 Nationalist MPs from a total of 59 constituencies, and which has a majority SNP Scottish Government.

All of these things shape me, and how I will read and interpret the text of the Apocalypse. I must not be afraid to acknowledge them, for in using them as my ‘lens’ to focus on the text, the prophetic voice of John the Seer might just be heard by me and by others who listen to the messages I will preach.

Book-and-reading-glasses-007

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Revelation – the story of a Scroll

John_Theologian_the_Vision_of_the_7_Churches__70873.1411765231.490.588Revelation appears to be a complex book – I say appears because the more one reads the book the more one can get the general drift of the narrative and how each part connects to the others. And although there is no universally agreed structure, there are various indicators in the text, such the occasions when John writes about being ‘in the spirit,’ that the story is moving on. But it is true that for our times some of the symbolism is complex, and perhaps some of it will never be fully understood. So how can people frightened of this complexity, and who keep Revelation at arm’s length, be helped to see the shape of the book and encouraged to engage with the text. Is there a relatively simple heuristic tool for them?

When I was younger, so much younger than today, there were slogans around to summarise the message of the book – like, ‘God Wins,’ or ‘God rules ok.’ There is more than a measure of truth in what these slogans affirm, as we can appreciate from the constant use of the themes of ‘victory’ and ‘the throne.’ But deeper engagement with the message of Revelation shows that they do not give anything like the breadth needed to sum up the message of this puzzling book. While pondering about a way to convey in relatively simple terms how to understand the book as a whole, I was reading Craig Koester’s mIMG_1631agisterial Anchor Yale Bible commentary on 5:1, and it reminded me that the events that take place on the opening of the seals of the Scroll are not themselves the contents of the Scroll (383f). It was then that the idea came into my head that might be a solution to my problem. Whether I have come across it already elsewhere I don’t know (will keep you in touch if I find it!), but it was as if the whole structure of the book fell into place all at once. Revelation is the story of a Scroll. In fact, it is a scroll telling the story of a Scroll (see below).

Having had this alleged epiphany (rather than apocalypse!) my first question to myself was, ‘does this fit the evidence of the book?’ so I quickly scribbled down how the various movements in the book might relate to the idea of the story of the Scroll. I believe that the evidence does support the idea, although I’m not necessarily arguing that John saw his own scroll this way. It is simply a tool for getting a handle on the whole book.

rev - unity or compositThe first thing we must grasp, and which comes across clearly in the ‘narrative commentaries’ of scholars such as Barr and Ressiguie, is that Revelation has an unfolding story. Whatever disputes there are about ‘editions’ and ‘compilations,’ it is the threads and themes of the narrative that drive it forward and hold it together. The book is comprehensible as a unity when we realise it is a story with various episodes. But what is it a story about? Good arguments could be made for a variety of answers, such as ‘the victory of the Slaughtered Lamb, and his Martyr Army, over the forces of evil.’ However, I believe that while that theme is a dominant one as the contents of the Scroll are delivered to us in John’s scroll, it does not give us the heuristic tool needed to encompass the whole book. How might we see the narrative episodes of Revelation using the idea of the book being the story of a Scroll?

Many interpreters of Revelation see the Throne Room scenes of chapters four and five as crux point of the book, and crucial to the ‘story of the Scroll’ idea is the significance of the βιβλίον in 5:1. Καὶ εἶδον ἐπὶ τὴν δεξιὰν τοῦ καθημένου ἐπὶ τοῦ θρόνου βιβλίον γεγραμμένον ἔσωθεν καὶ ὄπισθεν κατεσφραγισμένον σφραγῖσιν ἑπτά. ‘Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals (NIV).’

papyrus-sealed-with-seven-seals_1246685_inlWhat is this Scroll? It is held in the right hand of the one who sits on the throne, so ‘it presumably expresses the will of the God who holds it (Koester 383).’ Its seven seals underscore ‘the gravity of the contents (Koester 383).’ Whoever opens and reads this Scroll must be a worthy ambassador of the one who sits on the throne. As yet we have no clue of its contents but there is no doubting its importance.

We are prepared for its appearance from the very beginning of the book. An ‘apocalypse’ is on its way from God via several intermediaries, and while the word could apply to the whole book, I would argue that the narrative suggests the term might be equally, or more, applicable to the Scroll of 5:1. However, there is a prior scroll referred to in 1:11, and that is the scroll John is instructed to write, sending it to the seven churches of Asia. So Revelation is John’s scroll telling the story of the Scroll in the right hand of the one sitting on the throne.

The seven churches are prepared in advance for the contents of God’s Scroll by the fact that John’s scroll (within which God’s Scroll is contained) is authorised and instructed by the Risen Christ. The various messages of salvation and judgment are prior echoes of God’s Scroll and show that they are required to respond to its contents.

The following Throne Room scene has, literally, brilliant descriptions of the worship of heaven to the one sitting on the throne and to the slaughtered lamb (creation and redemption), showing how foundational gatherings for worship are to the ecclesial experience of the seven (and all) churches. But the main narrative driver in this scene is the appearance of the Scroll and the worthiness of the lamb to unseal it. From now on, the narrative of John’s scroll is dominated by preparation for seeing the contents of God’s Scroll (its unsealing), conveying its contents and responding to them.

Whether it is argued that the content of God’s Scroll is relayed to us from the beginning of the unsealing (6:1), or (around 10:9) when John is give the ‘little scroll,’ – or ‘Scroll,’ in our terms – will not matter much to our thesis. Either can be encompassed in a ‘story of the Scroll’ metanarrative. What is significant for us is that the scroll/Scroll theme appears yet again at the end of the book, when the contents of God’s Scroll have been told. In the space of a few verses ‘scroll/Scroll’ is used seven times (22:7, 9, 10, 18 twice, 19 twice). John is instructed not to seal up the prophetic words of this scroll, and a positive response to its words is urged. I believe it could be argued that the uses of τοῦ βιβλίου τούτου (‘of this scroll’) here could be bringing to a close the contents of God’s Scroll rather than John’s. But again, it may matter little to our thesis. It is clear that the story of both is coming to a close.

john scrollTo sum up, at the beginning of Revelation, John is instructed to write in a scroll (1:11) and circulate it to the seven churches. That scroll contains preparation for and the introduction of God’s Scroll (5:1), tells its story (from 6:1 or c10:1) of witness, suffering and new creation, and draws the story to a close by emphasising the importance of this scroll/Scroll (22:7ff) for communicating the prophetic message John is passing on, obeying it and not adding to or subtracting from it.

It seems to me, therefore, that the idea of Revelation as ‘the story of a Scroll’ could be a helpful heuristic tool to help people understand how the book fits together.

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God shall wipe away all tears – Remembering 7/7

In truth, I don’t remember much about the day itself – like where I was when I heard. But I do remember vividly some of the images: the roof of the bus, opened like a tin can, and the blanket clad bloodied travellers being helped by the emergency services, medics and paramedics running, always running, because time was of the essence in saving the lives of those who were bleeding out.

It’s ten years since that day. 7/7 the British equivalent of 9/11. Where has the time gone, for those of us whose lives have moved on, changed jobs and homes, watched children grow up and faced our own domestic dramas. There will be some for whom time has stood still, the daily consequences of that day being lived out as if it’s still a nightmare from which they hope to awaken.

7/7 – ironic really, from the point of view of Revelation. 6/6 might have been more appropriate. John would not have failed to see the irony with his keen awareness of the significance of numbers.

On this tenth anniversary, as chance would have it, my reading in Revelation has brought me to chapter 21: Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death” or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’

tears-wipe-awayAmid the violence, disaster, suffering and tears of life in this beautiful world so marred by sin, there is hope. 7/7 was a day for the ‘old order of things’ but, through the victory of the slaughtered lamb who has triumphed over death, we await a day when these old ways have gone – for ever. There is, I think, no more beautiful and compassionate picture of God in Scripture than this, that God will wipe away our tears. On this day of painful remembrance may those who sorrow know the divine embrace and handkerchief as a proleptic experience of that day when there will be no more death.

Below is a Youtube link to the moving musical expression of this text by Karl Jenkins. I prefer the Polyphony version, and there’s an Amazon link to that too. It is the music of heaven.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Ddigital-music&field-keywords=god+shall+wipe+away+all+tears

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