8-20-17 Sermon “You Say You Want a Revelation?” Part 2
Last week we looked at the opening three chapters, where John of Patmos reveals a series of visions that he has written down, that include a collection of letters directed to seven churches in the immediate area of Asia Minor Patmos, where John was exiled.
And we learned some very basic terminology that is crucial in understanding Revelation, including hermeneutic, the lens or point of view that is present in both the writing and in our reading; eschatology, which means “last things” and is the theological term associated with the “end times;” prophecy, which is really not so much about predictions of the future as it is God’s words about a current situation spoken through the mouths of the prophets;
and apocalyptic, the literary genre in which Revelation is classified, which uses vivid imagery and symbolism to describe visions or represent current reality.
John’s reality or context was a post-war society in which the Roman Imperial army had crushed Israel's and Jerusalem’s effort to win independence from Rome some 30 years earlier. The Temple was destroyed and much of Jerusalem with it, and thousands upon thousands were killed. In the aftermath, The Roman Emperor Domitian had begun a ruthless oppression and persecution of Christians across the empire.
In reviewing the letters to the seven churches that make up chapters 2 and 3 we talked first about the symbolism of the number seven itself, that it is considered to represent wholeness, completeness, and even perfection in theology and that John uses the number seven many times in his writing.
Secondly, we realized that the issues John covered in the seven letters were not exclusive to their time - that many churches today face some of the same issues.
So as we move this week into chapters 4 and 5, the focus shifts to heaven. In the first 3 chapters, the symbolism was pretty straightforward and easy to understand. Beginning in chapter 4, however, it become more complex. But using disciplined imagination it’s somewhat easier to understand and the author’s message a bit easier to comprehend.
So John, in a Spirit-inspired trance, sees a door opened to heaven and is invited to enter. The Greek word translated as “open” here suggests a permanent state of openness, not a door that could be closed.
John enters and attempts to describe the grandeur and glory of what he sees - God on the throne. But how could he do that? As Bible scholar Bruce Metzger points out, “the finite languages of earth are incapable of defining the infinite realities that John saw in heaven; hence he must use earthly analogies, but always with the understanding that the heavenly reality far surpasses the earthly symbol.”
And so, as Jewish writers are reluctant to picture or even say the name of God, John carefully avoids giving any kind of detailed description of form of substance, instead, describing the one on the throne as looking
like jasper and carnelian, two precious stones. And as Metzger describes, “the jasper John likely has in mind is a translucent type…clear as crystal…that when polished sparkles and flashes with luminous splendor,” and that carnelian is a “deeper red stone that seems as though a fire is smoldering inside.” And Metzger offers that John is suggesting that, in addition to the holiness of God, God’s anger also burns against sin, which would be consistent with the view of other biblical authors, particularly of the Hebrew Bible scriptures that John knows so well and references so often. In the nature of John’s writing, then, we see and appreciate the beautifully poetic way John describes the holiness and glory of God.
John then notices a “rainbow around the throne that looks like an emerald.” Now we remember, as would John, that the rainbow was the sign of the covenant of God’s mercy following the flood story in Genesis. God pledged to never again destroy the earth with a flood and set the bow in the sky as a sign of God’s covenant of mercy.
So a rainbow stretched over the throne of God, suggests that God is merciful in all that God does. Now we, like John, know that a rainbow is made of an entire spectrum of colors, yet John describes this one as being green, like an emerald - another precious stone. Green is a soothing, peaceful color - we think of distant meadows and cool forests (or beautiful golf courses) - when we see images of green.
Perhaps John suggests here that, having seen both the brilliance of God’s holiness and the heat of God’s anger over sin, that we can be comforted by the assurance of God’s mercy that overarches everything God does.
So, understanding the nature of God as John so poetically describes it is consistent with the theology taught elsewhere in Scriptures, we can understand that such a soothing image would serve as a healing balm for the persecuted Christians of John’s day, fighting for their daily existence in the midst of a Roman Empire and emperor that demanded total allegiance and worship. These images would remind them of the splendor, majesty, and power of God, the divine Presence and radiance surrounding the throne.
Other parts of his descriptions, though, are not as clear. For example, who are the twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, wearing golden crowns?
John doesn’t say, but some scholars believe they represent the patriarchs of the Old Testament, the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel, along with the twelve apostles of the New Testament, symbolizing the two covenants with God’s people. John describes thunder and lightning in the throne room, reminding us of Moses receiving the first covenant on Mt. Sinai, when God’s presence was described, as it often is in Hebrew poetry, as being in the thunder and lightning.
The description of something like a glassy crystal sea before the throne hearkens to a description of God from Exodus 24, where God is described as having stood on “something like a pavement of sapphire stone.”
John is probably alluding to that image from Scripture in trying to describe magnificence of the throne and all that surrounds it, as well as the distance that remains between he and the throne. The description also recalls the expanse of the Aegean Sea, which would have been clearly visible from the hills of Patmos, where John was exiled. It is a picture of both great distance as well as serenity, and pictures a rightly ordered universe in which God is at the center.
John then describes four living creature on each side of the throne, a description largely taken from the first chapter of Ezekiel, along with Isaiah, where the prophets relay visions of the throne room of God. The creatures are described as having the appearance of a lion, an ox, a human being, and a flying eagle. As such they symbolize respectively, what is in all creation the noblest (the lion), the strongest (the ox), the wisest (the human), and the swiftest (the eagle.) In later centuries these same four animals were often used to symbolize the four gospel writers as well and have influenced much Christian art over the centuries.
The function of these four creatures, which are mentioned fourteen times in the book - that is, the perfect number 7 times 2 - is to lead the worship of God in the throne room. This ceaseless worship of God by the creatures, who largely represent creation, is not their sole activity, but rather is their constant disposition - their every action an act of worship - a reminder of how we are called to live lives that glorify God in all that we do. So even though Revelation is often viewed as a book of destruction, God's fundamental identity is as Creator, and this scene anticipates the outcome of the book, where God's purposes culminate in new creation.
The creatures and the elders sing together in worship to God, a song that inspired our hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.” Then they sing again, inspiring our hymn, “You Alone Are Holy.” And then the elders ascribe to God the Creator the name that Emperor Domitian had attempted to take for himself, “our Lord and God.” Revelation functions rightly when it invites us into worship too -- which we do as we add our voices to the song.
The vision moves into chapter 5, where John notices a scroll held in the right hand of God, representing the total of God’s will, God’s desire for creation.
And the question is asked by a powerful angel, “Who is worthy to open the scroll?” When no one comes forward, John weeps, only to be told by one of the elders not to worry, “The Lion of Judah, the Root of David,” scriptural references to the messiah, can open the seven seals.
And then, as Metzger describes it, “What follows is altogether unexpected. John looked to see the Lion, the king of the beasts, and instead sees a Lamb with marks of slaughter upon it! He looked to see power and force, by which the enemies of his faith (think Roman Empire here) would be destroyed, and he sees sacrificial love and gentleness as the way to win victory. The might of Christ is the power of love. Most Jews had expected a Messiah who would break the yoke of the Roman Imperial power and liberate his people,” but we know that Jesus sought to quash those messianic expectations when, on that first Palm Sunday, he rode into town, not on a war horse, equipped with all kinds of weapons and armor, but on a donkey, a symbol of peace and humility. Here, instead of a ferocious lion that hurts others, the Messiah appears as a sacrificial lamb bearing the hurt of others. And we understand that the power of God is unleashed in the death of Christ. Not power borne of military might, but the power of self-sacrifice, that builds God's kingdom by redeeming people of every tribe and nation.
At this point, Metzger reminds us that we should not take this all of this imagery literally, John is describing symbols, and the symbols mean what they mean, not what they say. Jesus is not literally a lamb with four hooves, in this case with seven horns and seven eyes. The symbolism of seven horns suggests that Christ has complete power, the seven eyes that he sees and knows all things. Remember, in the seven letters Christ said to the churches “I know” when speaking to their particular situations and conditions. So in opening the scroll, Christ reveals God’s will. And then, suddenly, worship breaks out - the phrase that those gathered to worship “numbered in the millions - thousands upon thousands” suggests that all of creation, everywhere in all times and all places, worshiped together. This is the idea suggested in the Apostle’s Creed when we speak of the communion of saints; they’re not just those from our community who have gone before, but all the saints from all times and all places who worship God together on earth and in heaven. John’s primary purpose here is not so much to describe the worship in heaven, as to give hope and a sense of victory to his people here on earth in the struggles that they’re in the midst of, and still face.
The section from chapters six through eleven is intended to bring before the reader, not only the struggle of the church amid conflict and persecution, but also the judgments of God upon the church’s enemies, most notably in John’s time, Rome.
And we should note the structure that John follows, as this section of the book is dramatically arranged in a series of seven scenes, revealed as the Lamb opens each of the seven seals. The first four are opened at once and together make up one picture. Then the fifth and sixth are opened creating another picture, followed by some intermediate material and then the opening of the seventh seal, which reveals all new visions announced by the blowing of seven trumpets, and then that same pattern of four, then two, then one is repeated.
Within this complicated pattern, John seeks to develop his themes, but not in a strictly logical manner like we’re familiar with in Western writing. Remember, one feature of apocalyptic literature is that it isn’t typically chronological, and isn’t structured like modern writing because the writer doesn’t think the way modern Western writers think. It’s that hermeneutic thing at work.
John runs through the whole picture again and again, the seven seals and trumpets essentially telling the same thing, each time emphasizing different aspects of the whole.
Opening the seals reveals to us the vision of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, the description of which John borrows from Zechariah 6, also involving horses of various colors. But rather than Zechariah’s chariots, John places riders on them to convey the themes of the vision. Each visionary account follow a common pattern; the seal is opened, one of the creatures speaks, a horse and rider appears, and John explains their symbolism.
So John says,
“Then I looked on as the Lamb opened one of the seven seals. I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!”
2 So I looked, and there was a white horse. Its rider held a bow and was given a crown. And he went forth from victory to victory.”
And that pattern continues with the red horse, whose rider takes peace from the earth; the black horse, holding a pair of scales; and then a green horse, its rider symbolizing death. Each of these scenes are like vignettes or cameos - somewhat set apart from the other vision yet tied to it at the same time. Each rider goes in silence; we don’t know the direction they go, as the word “Come!” spoken by each of the creatures can also be translated as “Go!” So whether they travel from heaven towards earth or vice versa we don’t know.
But we wonder, what do they represent?
Here, Metzger helps to make sense of what is going on, saying, “One of the features that distinguishes the book of Revelation from other books in the New Testament is the author’s attempt to show how power fits into the divine scheme of things. John begins with the belief that all power comes from God. God is the absolute ruler of the world. But because God gave humankind free will, there is always the possibility that we might misuse the portion of power entrusted to us. When this happens, however, it doesn’t mean that God is helpless and frustrated. The world is still God’s world, and is still ruled in accordance with the eternal laws of right and wrong.”
So Metzger suggests that it’s the misuse of the power entrusted to humanity by God that brings on suffering and disaster. Wars, starvation, devastation are the results of that misuse. These, he says, “are the judgments of God, if you will, being worked out on the plane of history.” We might say, “you’ve made your bed, now sleep in it,” or “we reap what we sow.”
So the white horse, its rider holding a bow, rides off seeking conquest. The key to it’s meaning, Metzger says, is in the bow. It was the favorite and most prominent weapon of mounted Parthian warriors, to whom white was a sacred color. At the time of the writing, Parthia was a formidable neighbor and challenger to Rome on the eastern border of the Roman Empire. This image suggests a pending Parthian invasion against this Roman enemy of the church that will meet with success. The two were engaged in ongoing conflicts and battles for the better part of the first two centuries.
The second seal reveals a red horse, its rider holding a huge sword, and he is said to take peace from the earth, allowing the people to slaughter one another. Following the vision of the first horse, this symbolizes a coming war and bloodshed.
The third horse is black, symbolizing death, and the rider holds a scale in his hand, about which one of the winged creatures says, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius.” A denarius was the customary wage for a laborer for one days’ work, and usually a denarius would buy eight to sixteen times more grain than the amounts mentioned here.
In other words, warfare is followed by inflation and famine, which leads to starvation, disease, and death.
The forth horseman is Death itself, riding a horse that Metzger describes as the color of decaying flesh. Hades, the ruler of the dead, follows close behind.So what John describes here is the aftermath of war, which Metzger points out are the results of humanity’s misuse of power and the subsequent working out of God’s righteous will for the universe. God’s justice will prevail in the end, and no misuse of the power entrusted to humanity can stand in the way of that. God wills community, which is the consequence of caring and love. Ignore physical laws, like stepping off a cliff, and disaster follows. Neglect God’s moral laws, and disaster also follows. The woes described here are the result of not taking seriously God’s command to love one another, to strive for community, and to seek justice for all people. God does not will these woes, God does not cause them, but God allows them as the result of the free will given to us.
So the four horsemen of the Apocalypse are brilliant little vignettes of God’s judgments working out in history. This is what happens in the sphere of politics whenever men and women opposes the will of God for community and justice; and this is what happens in the military sphere when entrusted power is misused; and this in the economic sphere when God’s economy of abundance for all is distorted into an economy of scarcity where only a few have enough. The four horsemen are not to be taken literally, but the threats they represent should; threats of conquest, violence, economic insecurity, and death; threats that are real. They were real for people in the first century and remain real for people now. We need look no further than the events of last weekend in Virginia, where hatred, racism, and anti-Semitism reared their ugly heads and violence, death, and more hatred resulted. God did not sanction that misuse of God’s entrusted power, God mourns alongside those victimized by it, but God’s will for community grounded in Christ’s transformational love will not, in the end, be denied. As Martin Luther King, Jr. so prophetically reminds us, “the long arc of history bends towards justice.”
So these visions strip away the pretensions of security we create for ourselves. They point to the deep uncertainties that affect us all. And John suggests that there must be a judgment in which the guilty will not be able to escape - what goes around, comes around.
With the opening of the fifth seal, then, the action moves temporarily back to heaven, where the prayers of the martyrs of the faith who died through persecution in their faith and are said to be buried under heaven’s altar, are contained in the bowls held by the elders. And while the martyrs cry out for vengeance, they’re told they must wait, and at the proper time they, too, will be given their white robes and can enjoy their rightful place in heaven.
In the opening of the sixth seal we return to the punishment of the wicked, those misusers of power, and John again borrows heavily from symbolism found in the Hebrew Scriptures: the earthquake from Haggai 2, the sun turned black and moon turned blood red from Joel 2, stars falling from heaven like figs from a tree from Isaiah 34, and the sky rolled up like a scroll, also from Isaiah 34. This use of cosmic convulsions to describe social and political upheaval is well established in biblical prophecy. And yes, there are people suggesting, yet again, that the solar eclipse on Monday is THE end of the world.
To take these images literally, and worse, to suggest that events that John describes in his context somehow point to events or persons in our current historical setting is foolishness, Metzger argues, as has been shown by the many so-called prophets over the centuries, all of whom assumed that John “must be talking about us.” John writes about his time and his context, not ours.
And so the revelation continues. John sees an angel flying with the seal of the living God. Standing before him are 144,000 men - 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes, representing all of Israel, in this case, the new Israel, the Christian church. Twelve thousand from each of twelve tribes suggests all of all - the whole nation of Israel are marked as wearing the seal of belonging to God.
In the next vision, John sees a great uncountable multitude standing before the throne of the Lamb, robed in white and carrying palm branches, denoting they are victors. The two visions stand in strange contrast to one another even as they coalesce with one another. In the first vision, the throng can be counted; in the second it’s infinitely numerous. The first is drawn from the twelve tribes of Israel; the second, from every nation. In the first they are being prepared for imminent peril; in the second they are victorious and secure. The two visions are correlative, Metzger offers. “Those of the first vision, who are in or about to enter a time of secular opposition, of war and persecution, are, in the second vision, given encouragement by revealing to them the hope and redemption of Christ that awaits them. The symbolism of the promised hope found in living and trusting in the will of God as revealed in Jesus Christ is both timeless and universal.”
In chapters 8-11 then, we have the sounding of seven trumpets by seven angels in the same sequence as with the seals - four, then two, then one. And we don’t have the time to go into the same kind of detail with these visions as we did with the seven seals, but they describe again the same general types of destructions as the prior ones. This time, though, John uses imagery similar to the plagues that Moses called down on Pharaoh, the Emperor of his day, in trying to gain the freedom of the people of Israel in that time. Do you see the pattern here? John compares the treatment of Israel now, under the Roman Empire, to that of the people then under the Egyptian Empire, and as the prophets John borrows from described it under the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. And John records a vision of storms and earthquakes, and “something like a great mountain, burning with fire, and thrown into the sea,” that reads almost exactly like descriptions of the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in southern Italy about 15 years earlier.
He also envisions a plague of giant, armored locusts that attack the oppressors of the people for five months, which is, coincidentally or not, the lifespan of normal locusts in nature. And then he sees an army of two hundred million horsemen cross the Euphrates River. And important in understanding this vision in historical context is that the Euphrates River constituted the eastern border of the Roman empire, beyond which was that massive Parthian army suggested by the white horse and bow wielding horseman we talked about earlier.
And again, we must remember that the objects and the events seen in a vision are not physically real. Like the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel and the sheet with animals lowered to Peter in Acts, they were perceived in a trance. Things seen in a vision are not physically present. Neither are they descriptions of real events, or even predictions of future occurrences - they’re symbols of or code for real time occurrences. The intention is not to fix the reader’s thought on the symbol, but upon the idea that the symbolic language is meant to convey.
As dire as the imagery is, the intention of the symbolic sounding of the seven trumpets is not to inflict vengeance; after all, much of what is described are the results of choices that humanity has made in its misuse of entrusted power. Rather, it’s to call the people to repentance, to change their hearts, thus changing their minds, and leading to a change in action or behavior.
And one would think such imagery would be enough to bring people to repentance, but we know two thousand years later that that was not and is not the case. And John thus identifies the sin to which humanity clings so tenaciously as idolatry. In John’s time this involved emperor worship as well as pagan worship, but whatever form it takes in any age, the worship of, or the placing of anyone or anything, real or symbolic, on the same level as God is always, always the greatest sin.
Between the sixth and seventh trumpets, there’s a pause. We anticipate a final, destructive sequence in which all that remains is perhaps destroyed in a storm of fire and brimstone. But in John’s vision he sees “another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head” - meaning he’s clothed with God’s power and mercy. And this angel carries another, smaller scroll, that he instructs John to eat, that is to “read…and inwardly digest,” so that he can then make it known to “many peoples and nations and languages and kings.”
And then, in a blur of images and symbols tossed about as though in a blender, in one of the most perplexing sections of the entire book, we find symbols referencing Old Testament prophecy and history. John references the Jerusalem temple and its altar, Moses and Elijah, the wild olive trees and the lamp stands seen in Zechariah, the plagues sent upon Pharaoh in Exodus, the tyrant predicted by Daniel, and even Egypt and Jerusalem. And as Metzger suggests, perhaps the most that can be said of this section with confidence - as many people interpret it in many different ways - is that “[John] views the people of God as bearing faithful testimony, but also as suffering pain and persecution and indignity. They are delivered,” he suggests, “not from martyrdom and death, but through martyrdom and death to a glorious resurrection.” Not everyone will survive the persecution they face at the hands of empire, this suggests, - then or now - but there is hope for all in the promised resurrection.
This section of the book closes with the sounding of the last of the seven trumpets. What is startling is that what follows is so utterly unlike anything that the other trumpets announced. Instead of more volcanic eruptions, locust invasions, or fire-breathing monsters, there’s an outburst of rejoicing in heaven. John hears the heavenly chorus celebrating victory. The twenty-four elders celebrate God’s assumption of power from those who have misused and abused it. And John sees a new vision of divine glory: “God’s temple in heaven was opened,” revealing the ark of the covenant, the sign of God’s presence with God’s people.
And this would seem like a good place to end the book, with all the people in heaven and on earth singing Kum Ba Yah, holding hands, and buying each other metaphorical Coca-Colas. If John had finished here, it would seem a proper ending. But instead he goes on for eleven more chapters, returning to earlier stages and repeating some previous teachings, confirming once again the non-chronological nature of apocalyptic literature, and showing once again that the sequence in which John’s visions are presented does not allow us to turn the book of Revelation into an almanac or time chart of the last days.
So going into next week, remember “it doesn’t mean what it says, it means what it means.” We’ll pick up with chapters 12-18, and flash back a little to some different considerations of some of the same ideas, we’ll introduce some new characters into the story, like a couple of beasts, we’ll explore some new locations, such as Babylon, and we’ll have a little mathematics lesson when we consider the significance of the number 666. Don’t miss it.
Lord, we thank you for the wonder of scripture and are thankful for the inspired work of all of those who give witness to you in the books we consider holy. Inspire us in our reading, that we might discern how this writing might inform our faith and guide our lives, that all that we do in our lives bring glory to you. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.