The throne in Revelation 4 is a good opportunity to think about our interpretive method for apocalyptic literature. In another post I pointed out throne room scenes are common in Second Temple apocalyptic and that the imagery John uses here is similar to several other well-known apocalyptic texts.

The throne is described as having the appearance of jasper (ἴασπις) and carnelian (σάρδιον).  The identification of ancient minerals is always tentative. For example, Jasper “was not limited to the variety of quartz now called jasper, but could designate any opaque precious stone” (BDAG). In fact, the color of the stone varied greatly.  Both Jasper and carnelian are stones in the New Jerusalem in 21:19-20, although BDAG suggests that an opal is a better translation for jasper. The words appear in only two contexts in the LXX, but both are of interest here. First, both jasper and carnelian are part of the ephod worn by the high priest (Exod 28:18) but also the decorations of the “guardian cherub” in Ezek 28:13. Jasper appears in LXX Isaiah 54:12, a description of Zion when she is re-established as the Lord’s wife after the exile.

God's ThroneEncircling the throne is a rainbow, resembling emerald (σμαράγδινος). The rainbow is more like a halo emanating out from the throne, possible “like an emerald” because the light from the throne is penetrating the transparent stones of the thrones. While emerald is among the stones in the high priest’s breastplate and New Jerusalem, the whole scene is reminiscent of Ezekiel 1:28. There a rainbow was behind the throne of “something like a man,” a representation of the glory of God.

Is there any “special meaning” to the stones in the throne room? In older commentaries, the stones in the throne of God (and the New Jerusalem) have been interpreted as having something to say about the character of God.  Even as recently as John Walvoord’s commentary on Revelation, the stones were thought to represent God’s attributes.  Jasper referred to God’s holiness, carnelian his wrath and judgment, and emerald referred to God’s grace and mercy (103-104). In addition, he observes that jasper and the “sardine” stone are the first and last stones in Exodus 28:17-21. Jasper represents Reuben, carnelian Benjamin. Since Reuben means “behold a son” and Benjamin means “son of my right hand,” Walvoord understands the stones as references to Jesus, the son of God.  As for the carnelian, Hengstenberg, thought the reddish stone was used “to represent the punitive righteousness of God, his anger, cannot be doubted when we look at the fundamental and parallel passages” (The Revelation of St. John, 245).

Older commentaries often allegorized the emerald rainbow as well. Elliot thought that the emerald rainbow was “in sight like unto an emerald;”—the well-known and lovely memorial of the covenant of grace (Horæ Apocalypticæ 1:85, cf., Simcox, The Revelation of S. John the Divine, 31). The green of the emerald “the green emerald may fitly represent God’s goodness displayed in nature.” (A. Plummer, Revelation, The Pulpit Commentary, 145).

The vast majority of modern commentators take the stones as indications of the glorious nature of the throne room of God.  God does not need a gem encrusted throne on which to sit, it is a way of described the awesomeness of God. But for someone who knows the Hebrew Bible or Septuagint, the image of “God’s throne” always includes precious stones and emeralds. For a Greco-Roman reader, imperial throne rooms are always majestic  and richly decorated.

Rather than interpret each detail in order to give it a “spiritual” meaning about God’s attributes or some hint at the incarnation of Jesus, the whole scene is intended to evoke the glorious majesty of the one who sits on the throne. To over-interpret the imagery to find an allusions to the “covenant of grace” or the attributes of God risks missing the original intention of John.

Like the 24 elders, the four “living creatures” worship God at his throne (Rev 4:6b-8a). The NIV places these creatures “in the center, around the throne.” This reflects the difficulty of the syntax of this line in Greek. It could mean they are simply in the immediate vicinity of the throne, near the throne.

Most scholars think John’s vision draws on the throne room vision from Ezekiel 1-2. If this is true, then these creatures in Rev 4 are cherubim. In Ezekiel the four creatures are a part of the throne of God, more or less the “wheels” of the Throne-Chariot of God. There are, however, a number of differences between these creatures and Ezekiel 1-2. The four creatures are described as having similar other-worldly features. They are “full of eyes,” or “eyes all around.” This is similar to Ezekiel 1; the cherubim are “wheels within wheels, full of eyes.” But the description is also slightly different; the faces are not quite the same in Revelation.

Thirteenth century ivory carving of Christ surrounded by the four living creatures from the MusŽe national du Moyen-åge

Thirteenth century ivory carving of Christ surrounded by the four living creatures from the Muse national du Moyen-åge

It is possible the description in Revelation recalls something of Ezekiel, but also may have been influenced by other developments in Jewish thinking about angels. One possibility is that John intended to make a reference to archangels. In the Hebrew Bible, there are no archangels, although Gabriel (Dan 8:16, 9:21, Luke 1:18, 26) and Michael (Dan 12:1, Jude 9) are two specific, named angels given that distinction in later Jewish documents. “Archangel” does appear in Jewish literature, but it is perhaps not the right designation for these angels.

It is possible these many-eyed creatures are apocalyptic “watchers.” In some apocalypses written well before the first century, there is a category of angelic being who are designed by God to “witness” everything (1 Enoch 1:5, Jubilees 4:15; 8:3; 10:5). According to 1 Enoch 6-36, some of these angels came down to earth and taught humans sinful practices (like making war and sorcery, but also medicine and cosmetics, 1 Enoch 8). They also had relations with human women and created “the giants.” Michael and Gabriel (along with Surafel or Uriel, depending on the manuscript of 1 Enoch) “observed carefully from the sky” all of this wickedness and called out to the Most High to judge these angels and to destroy the wickedness they had caused (1 Enoch 9-10). The result, of course, is the flood (and a blockbuster Hollywood film).

The Targum on Ezekiel has an expanded description of the cherubim. In Tg. Ezek. 1:6 the angelic beings face four faces, each of which have four faces, sixteen to each creature, with sixty-four faces in all. This kind of elaboration is also found in 3 Enoch 21:1-3:

R. Ishmael said: The angel Metatron, Prince of the Divine Presence, said to me: There are four creatures facing the four winds. Each single creature would fill the whole world. Each of them has four faces and every single face looks like the sunrise. 2 Each creature has four wings and every single wing would cover the world. 3 Each one of them has faces within faces and wings within wings. The size of a face is 248 faces, and the size of a wing is 365 wings. 4 Each creature is crowned with 2,000 crowns and every crown is like the rainbow; its brightness is as the brightness of the sun’s orb and the rays which shine from each separate crown are as the brightness of the morning star in the east. (P. Alexander, OTP 1: 277)

Each of the four creatures has a different appearance. Only the third is said to have the “face” of a man, but based on Ezekiel 1 it may be that only the face is in mind. A major difference between these four creatures and Ezekiel 1 is that each creature has a different face, while Ezekiel 1 describes four creatures with four faces each. These creatures have wings like the Seraphim of Isaiah 6 and they worship God is a very similar manner as the Seraphim, but other characteristics (such as the faces and eyes, etc.) are similar to Ezekiel.

AliensMany attempts have been made to ferret out some meaning of the four faces, some more serious than others. The church fathers usually tried to find the four gospels in the faces, but never really agreed on which gospel was intended. It is probably best to agree with the majority of modern commentaries and see these faces as referring to the highest creature in four categories, wild animal, domestic animal, flying animal, and man.

We can know for certain these creatures lead worship in heaven (Rev 4:6-9; 5:8-9, 19:4) and they appear to be associated with the throne of God. In Rev 6:1-7 they will announce the coming of the four horsemen after each seal is opened, and in 15:7 one of these creatures gives the seven bowls of God’s wrath to the angels who pour them out on the earth (16:1).

 

The 24 elders in Revelation 4-5 are a good test-case for methods of interpretation in this unusual book. What is important in this vision is the worship God receives from all of creation. Is the number 24 significant?

william-blake-revelation-4

The Twenty-Four Elders by William Blake

There are a few unusual views for the 24 elders we should probably set aside early on. For example, some have taken the number 24 as the 24 books of the Old Testament. (This is mentioned by Greg Beale, although he does not advocate for this view, Revelation, 326). The evidence for this view is The Gospel of Thomas 52. There Jesus says that there were 24 prophets who spoke to Israel, meaning the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible.  This means the “elders” are the book which the Lamb fulfills in his death and resurrection. Ford identified the 24 as the “great men of the faith” listed in Sirach 44-49, although few have been persuaded by her argument. Henry Morris argued the rather unique view that the 24 elders are the 24 ancestors of Christ, Adam to Pharez (The Revelation Record).

In most cases, the 24 elders are either angles or humans.  David Aune sorts commentators into these two categories. If they are humans, then there are several possibilities to identify who those humans might be.

The Elders are Angelic beings. No other human beings are present when John is called up to heaven.  Isaiah 24:33 may refer to angels as elders and  Psalm 89:7 describes God enthroned among his “council.” Colossians 1:16, Eph 3:10 and 6:12 refer to angelic hierarchy as “thrones. There are several places in Revelation in which the elders re-appear.  In each of these verses it seems unlikely that humans are in view (5:8, 7:13-14, etc.)

This is a tradition, beginning with Old Testament texts and extending into the apocalyptic literature, of God’s counsel as consisting of angels. That these are angels is consistent with the general apocalyptic images gathered together in this chapter.

Sepher ha-Razim 1.8  Within, three princes sit on their thrones; they and their raiment have an appearance like fire and the appearance of their thrones is like fire, fire that gleams like gold, for they rule over all the angels of fire. (Cited by Aune, 1:61)

The Apoc. Zeph. A  And a spirit took me and brought me up into the fifth heaven. And I saw angels who are called “lords”, and the diadem was set upon them in the Holy Spirit, and the throne of each of them was sevenfold more (brilliant) than the light of the rising sun. (And they were) dwelling in the temples of salvation and singing hymns to the ineffable most high God. (Cited by Aune, 1:61).

If the scene in heaven is a “heavenly temple,” then the 24 elders may be a reference to the 24 priests / Levites who lead  worship in Solomon’s temple.

The 24 elders are humans. In support of the 24 elders as humans, commentators usually note that angels are never called elders anywhere else in scripture (Isaiah 24:33 is a debated passage.)  In addition, the white clothing and crown are promised to the churches of Asia Minor if they “overcome.” There are three variations on this view. First, the Elders may represent the Church. The letters to the seven churches were all addressed to the “angel” of the church.  This is an indication that an angel might represent a church.  Here, these heavenly inhabitants represent the church of this age.  Several classic dispensationalists have held this view, including Ryrie (Revelation 36) and John F. Walvoord Revelation (107). In fact, Walvoord entitles chapter 4 “The Church in Heaven” because they are rapture before the time referred to by this chapter.

Second, the Elders may represent Israel. The 24 thrones are based on the 24 priest in David’s temple (1 Chron. 24:3-19 or the 24 Levites in 1 Chron5:6-31, cf. Josephus, Ant 7:363-367).

Qoh. Rab. 1.11 In the Hereafter, however, the Holy One, blessed be He, will number for Himself a band of righteous men of His own and seat them by Him in the Great Academy; as it is said, “Then the moon shall be confounded and the sun ashamed for the Lord of hosts will reign in mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before His elders shall be glory” (Isa XXIV, 23). It is not written here “Before His angels, His troops, or His priests” but “before His elders shall be glory.”

Tanhuma, Shemot 29   The Holy One, blessed be He, will in the future cause the elders of Israel to stand as in a threshing floor, and He will sit at the head of them all as president and they will judge the nations of the world.

Third, the Elders may represent the Old Testament and New Testament Saints. For some, the 24 thrones are twelve for the 12 tribes of Israel and 12 for the 12 apostles. Occasionally this is expressed as “the church of all ages,” or as Swete thought, the elders represent “the church in its totality” (Revelation, 68-69). An a-millennial interpretation of Revelation would naturally see the Old and New Testament believers as the same church

One other possibility is that the elders are human, but the image is designed as a parody of the 24 lictors (bodyguards) who normally accompanied the Emperor Domitian. Suetonius described Domitian as follows:   “He presided at the competitions in half-boots, clad in a purple toga in the Greek fashion, and wearing upon his head a golden crown with figures of Jupiter ,Juno, and Minerva, while by his side sat the priest of Jupiter and the college of the Flaviales, similarly dressed, except that their crowns bore his image as well.” (Aune 1:292)

While it is probably better to avoid dogmatism on this point, my understanding of the 24 elders is that they are angels who worship God before his throne. This might overlap with the lictors in a Greco-Roman throne room scene. Since there is a distinction between the elders and the “saints” later in the book, this identification seems best. In this case the number 24 (12 and 12) might not be significant for interpreting the imagery.

Hudson, Robert. The Monk’s Record Player: Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. 249 pp. Hb; $23.99.   Link to Eerdmans

In his foreword to this new book, David Dalton confesses that his first impression of a book on Thomas Merton and Bob Dylan was “just plain perverse or at the very least willfully paradoxical.” Pairing two polar opposites sometimes generates intriguing discussion, but are Thomas Merton and Bob Dylan “opposites”? They seem like they inhabit different universes. On the surface, writing a book on the two seems so strange and to subtitle the book “the Perilous Summer of 1966” seems oddly specific.

There will be some readers who love Thomas Merton but have no idea what to think of Bob Dylan and his nasal tones. There will be other readers who are intimately familiar with Bob Dylan’s career but will need to spend some time on Wikipedia to figure out who in the world Thomas Merton was. Both have a fiercely loyal fandom, both have generated significant secondary literature studying every word they have written from every conceivable angle.

I will admit, I am solidly on the side of the Bob Dylan fanatics. I remember hearing Dylan when I was a child and being captivated with his lyrics and strange mystery tramp image. I remember a fifth grade teacher having the class sing Blowin’ in the Wind, “How many times must the cannonball fly?” One of the first records I bought as a teenager was the live album Hard Rain, and like most people my age his Blood on the Tracks was a favorite. Dylan’s spiritual awaking in the late 1970s paralleled my own. As an adult I have seen Dylan in concert twenty-five times, purchased all his albums in several different formats and tracked down elusive bootlegs and “field recordings.” I have been asked to lecture in a popular music class on the impact of Bob Dylan on American culture.

But Thomas Merton was a mystery to me before reading Hudson’s book. I had a vague idea he was an important writer in Catholic circles, but I had never read anything by him, nor would I be likely to given my Protestant commitments. When I first saw the promotional material for this book, my only thought was “he was a monk, right”? He was, but he was so much more. Beyond his voluminous spiritual writings, Merton was a poet, he wrote on social issues including atomic weapons and the Vietnam War, he was interested in Buddhist monasticism and building bridges between Catholicism and eastern religions. And in 1965, he discovered Bob Dylan’s music and he was immediately hooked. In fact, Dylan influenced Merton to write Cables to the Ace, a collection of poetry which might perplex a Merton fan, but would be quite familiar to Dylan fans in 1965.

Merton and Dylan never met, although Merton reached out to him several times. Even so, Hudson tracks Merton’s fascination with Dylan during a period in Merton’s life which included his retreat to a hermitage but also his well-known affair. At the same time, Dylan was imploding after becoming the new “voice of a generation” in the early sixties. Dylan “went electric” in 1965 and embarked on a world tour which tested his limits. After a near fatal motorcycle accident in 1966, Dylan too retreated to a farm in Woodstock to raise his kids and contemplate his life and fame.

Both Merton and Dylan struggled to live out a contemplative life. Although Merton thought he was called to live as a hermit, Hudson narrates Merton’s struggle to be separate from the world, including an affair with the much younger Margie Smith. Merton also met Vietnamese Zen master and peace activist Thích Nhất Hạnh. In 1966, Joan Baez and Ira Sandperl visited Merton and encouraged him to teach at Sandperl’s Institute for the Study of Nonviolence. Dylan’s time on his farm in Woodstock was also a struggle since his longtime manager pushed for new material. Dylan wrote dozens of songs and collaborated with The Band in a series of recording sessions. The result was the first real bootleg album, the Great White Wonder, prompting the release of Dylan’s Basement Tapes and the Band’s Music from the Big Pink. Hardly a contemplative life on the farm!

So there are some parallels, and Hudson masterfully narrates the last years of Merton’s life, including his obsession with Bob Dylan. Merton was no desert monk, he had a record player in his hermitage and he played three Bob Dylan albums (Another Side of Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde). Like many people who have encountered Dylan’s music and lyrics, the words resonated with Merton where he was at the time and shaped some of his poetry as well as opening up his thinking to new ways to communicate.

Hudson’s book is a good introduction to Merton for non-Merton readers, and might encourage a few non-Dylan fans to pick up some of Dylan’s early recordings. Although the book seems like an odd mash-up of unrelated characters, Hudson’s narrative invites the reader into the word of the mid-1960s as Merton deals with his own passions through the lens of Bob Dylan.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

In a 1993 interview for The Door, Tony Campolo said:

“Any theology that does not live with a sense of the immediate return of Christ is a theology that take the edge off the urgency of faith. But any theology that does not cause us to live as though the world will be here for thousands of years is a theology that leads us into social irresponsibility.”

Marvin Pate concludes his introduction to Four Views on Revelation with these words, distancing himself from both the overly zealous Dispensational interpreter of Revelation who finds cryptic references to Obama’s Health Care mandate or the events of 9/11 in the metaphors of the seals, trumpets or bowls. He also wants to avoid a totally non-eschatological view of the book, since the author of Revelation really does claim to be writing about a future, eschatological age.

armageddon-comicAs I am preparing to teach a three week intensive course on Daniel and Revelation, I resonate deeply with what Campolo says. I think many students think a class on Revelation will be provide a kind of “end times outline of future events” complete with Clarence Larkin charts and graphs. While I am committed to a belief in the future return of Christ (including a rapture and a tribulation), the sort of thing that passes for “prophetic studies” are quite embarrassing. If anyone was expecting that sort of weirdness in my class, I think they will disappointed.

I usually joke at the beginning of the class the title of the class ought to have been “An Introduction to Apocalyptic Literature of the Second Temple Period.” That is the class I would really like to teach, although not many undergraduates would opt for an elective with that particular title. But Daniel and Revelation must be read for what they are, examples of apocalyptic literature from the Second Temple Period! Revelation is a book  that has a “sense of the immediate return of Christ” and an “urgency of faith.” But also call their readers to challenge their culture, and “come out of Babylon.” Both Daniel and Revelation urge their readers to social responsibility that goes beyond even what Campolo had in mind.

tribulation-mapRevelation is about God transforming the world, beginning with his faithful in the world and culminating with his Son’s glorious return in the future.  In order to live out the theology of the book of Revelation, we must constantly be engaged with the world, evaluating and reforming it. The seven churches were not called to found monasteries, but to constantly be on their guard against any corruption of their faith while they continue to interact with their culture. This struggle will eventually end when Christ returns, but for now, it is difficult, and even deadly.

Nor were the seven churches in Revelation called to create complicated charts mapping out future events. There is a great deal of prophecy fulfilled in the life of Jesus. But no one suggested people could have used the Old Testament Prophets to write a life of Christ 50 years before he was born! Prophecy was fulfilled in literally, but in remarkable and surprising ways. What makes us think the Book of Revelation could yield a “tribulation map” warning people of the times and dates of various judgments?

The warnings in Revelation are against complacency and compromise.  What will happen in the future is certain, but our calling now is to live properly in the shadow of the Second Coming, whether it happens in our lifetime or not.

The theological term for the end times is eschatology, the study of last things. This includes not only the return of Christ and the kingdom, but also “personal eschatology,” what happens to individuals after death, what judgments await the believer and the unbeliever. I think that the study of the “end times” has mutated into “what is going to happen to those people left behind after the Rapture?” While I do believe in a Rapture / Tribulation / Second Coming scheme, I think it is more helpful to see the overall themes of Revelation rather that try to get ever detail of the Tribulation lined up on a chart.

I want to let Revelation speak for itself as much as possible, and to do that the book must be read in the context of the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Jewish expectations. John is remarkably consistent with the Judaism of his day, with the exception of identifying Jesus as the Messiah.

The most general teaching of Revelation concerning personal eschatology is that the righteous are to be rewarded and the unrighteous are to be condemned. This is consistent with the Hebrew Bible. When the messianic age begins, there is a judgment of the nations and of Israel. Not everyone participates in the messianic age, as a text like Isaiah 25:6-9 makes clear. While many will gather on Zion to participate in the inaugural banquet at the beginning of the age, Israel’s prototypical enemy Moab will be trampled in the mud (25:10-12). Jesus also described the beginning of the new age as a harvest, where the wheat will be gathered into the barn (where it belongs) and the weeds gathered and thrown on a fire (where they belong). This theme of eschatological separation is common in Jesus’ parables (Matt 13:24-30, for example).

Prior to the beginning of the eschatological age, the Hebrew Bible expects a time of persecution of the people of God. In a book like Daniel, this period of persecution will separate the true Israel from the false. The capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians initiated a long sequence of conflict with pagan rulers which reached a climax during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanies. The struggles of the Maccabean period become a paradigm for future persecutions.

In Revelation, there is a persecution of those who refuse to worship the beast or take his mark. Revelation 13:7 describes this as a “war on the saints” which will result in the death of many who are followers of Christ (13:10, 20:4). This persecution is a time when a choice must be made to worship the beast (taking his mark) or to worship the Lamb. There is no middle ground, the time of great persecution is a sifting of the true followers from the false.

In Revelation 20, there is a judgment at the beginning of the Kingdom of God, or the eschatological age. John’s vision turns to a scene of thrones, thrones for those who were martyred during the tribulation, and thrones for those that endured until the end. In this vision, it is the souls of those who were faithful during the tribulation that sit upon thrones. The souls that John is seeing in these verses are those that were under the altar in 6:9 crying out to God asking to be revenged for their death at the hands of the beast and his kingdom.

With respect to the future, then, Revelation promises that God will judge justly.  Those who persecute will be judged and separated from the Kingdom of God, while those who were persecuted will be vindicated and enter into that Kingdom.

The person of Jesus frames the book of Revelation. In a previous post I argued that the major theme of Revelation is worship, so it is no surprise that the object of this worship is often Jesus as the Messiah, the Lamb of God.

The book begins with John’s vision describing Christ in terms of a Theophany (1:12-18). Chapter 19 Christ returns to this world as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (19:16). The most common description of Jesus in the book of Revelation is as a “Lamb,” appearing some 28 times in the book (Rev 5:6, 12-13). This is a natural extension of the theology of the Gospel of John, which clearly describes Jesus Christ as the perfect Sacrificial Lamb to save the world from its sins (John 1:29, 36).

Obviously the image of a Lamb was intended to evoke a sacrificed animal. When no one is found worthy to open the scroll in Revelation 5, John weeps bitterly. And angel tells him that the “Lion of Judah” has triumphed and his worthy to open the scroll. But when John looks to see the Lion of Judah, he sees the “Lamb that was slain.” This lamb is on the throne of God ready to receive the scroll.

The description of the Lamb is somewhat unexpected – seven horns and seven eyes. There is no “lamb” imagery associated with the Messiah in Judaism, but it is an important them for the gospel of John. The seven eyes may allude to the number of times Christ says that he “sees” in the letters to the seven churches (Rev 2:2, 9, 13, 19; 3:1, 8, 15). That the Lamb was slain may allude to imagery of the messiah as a lamb “lead to the slaughter” in Isa 53:7.

While this Lamb brings salvation to the world, he is also the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. He returns as a judge over the nations that oppose God (Rev 5:5, 19:15). This is intentionally ironic since a lamb is not a good symbol for judgment. But the Christ is both a sacrifice and a judge. Taking the Johannine literature as a while, Jesus as the Lamb of God is the subject of the gospel of John, while the image of Jesus as a conquering king is the subject of Revelation. Both roles are important in John’s theology of Jesus as Messiah, Son of God.

In the book of Revelation, Jesus is equal to God and equally worthy of the praise of all creation. John intentionally equates the “one who sits on the throne” and the Lamb by using the same words applied to God in 4:11 to the Lamb in 5:12-13. In 7:10-12, the worshipers declare that salvation belongs to “Our God, who sits on the throne” and to the Lamb. Both God and the Lamb are “worthy of praise.

Bibliography. David Aune has an excursus on Christ as Lamb of God (Revelation 1:367ff ). See also C. K. Barrett, “The Lamb of God” NTS 1 (1954-55) 210-18; N. Hillyer, “‘The Lamb’ in the Apocalypse.” EvQ 39 (1967) 228-36.

It is important to remember the oral nature of our texts in the New Testament, Harry Maier (Apocalypse Recalled, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002) emphasizes the “performance” of the text as a vital component of how to understand Revelation. While it is certain the ancient world was an oral culture, it is not clear if an early church service was a “performance” in quite the way Maier and others describe it.  I am left with the impression the reader in a congregation is more like an interpretive artist who breathes some life into the text as they read.  In terms of Greek-oratormodern literary theory it is often thought that a piece of literature is not complete without the reader encountering the author in the text. By making the text a performance, a third party enters into the interpretation of a text, the actor. The actor/reader takes the text from the page and “interprets” it for the listener.  This whole process is said to “create meaning.”

I recently read an interpretation of the lyrics of the songwriter Bob Dylan written by the literary critic Christopher Ricks.  Ricks makes the point that one cannot simply read lyrics and receive the full impact of the text, one must hear them performed in order to get the “full effect” and intention of the writer.  In a similar way, Maier is saying we must learn to “hear” the script of Revelation as it was “heard” in the first century, as oral performance. This is an interesting goal, but it seems nearly impossible to do when reading the text – how can we know what elements of the text are intended as rhetorical without having experienced a first century “reading”?

If this performance aspect of Revelation is critically important, it seems as though we can never fully appreciate the book since we can never “hear” it performed as John intended it.  On the other hand, perhaps Meier would not care for the original intention of the author, since it is the “recalling” of the Apocalypse which is so important to him.

Maier attempts to tease out some of the rhetorical elements of Revelation which indicate a possible “oral performance.”  These include repetitive elements (the list of the twelve tribes, for example).  An aspect of repetition which can be overlooked is the typical supplementation of the third (or last) in a series.  Maier’s example is the three woes, where the third “woe” is the fall of Babylon.  Maier considers these as performance, the text does not “mean,” it “does.”

While if find the use of rhetoric very valuable for working out some of the details of the Apocalypse and these devices are certainly aspects which imply an “oral” reading, I am less impressed by the implication these rhetorical devices will raise the interpreter above the “apocalyptic time-line” interpretations.  It seems to me that a commentator can recognize all the rhetorical elements of the book and still read Revelation as having a future aspect. Even if Revelation is a performance meant to “be heard not analyzed,” it does not follow that the performance necessarily has nothing to say about the future.

Despite the fact the book has a great deal to say about coming events, Revelation is not a roadmap of the future. It is, rather, an exhortation for today. It is possible that people living in the tribulation will pick up the book of Revelation and see the things spoken of being fulfilled in their lives, but the people living at that time will be under a delusion, (2 Thess. 2:11) and may not have the spiritual insight to believe what the book teaches. Revelation was intended to be read by the church living in the shadow of the Second Coming bearing up under persecution for their belief in Jesus, in order to encourage them to be strong and endure until the end.

The main theological point Revelation makes is that God is worthy of our worship. There are several scenes of heavenly worship around the throne of God (Rev 5:13, 7:11-12). As Grant Osborne notes, “The primary theme is proper worship of God” (Revelation, 12). When I read that I thought that worship could not possibly be a major theme of the book, but when I reflected on the contents of each chapter, it turns out that nearly every chapter of the book has some sort of a worship scene, song of praise, or doxology. The witnesses to the judgments described by the book respond in praise to God as the only thing in all of creation which is in fact worthy of worship.  It might be helpful to think about how many classic hymns and popular worship songs are drawn from Revelation, especially chapters 4-5.

This theme of worship has to be taken in the context of the Imperial Cult which declared that Rome was worthy of worship and that the Emperor ought to be honored as a God. But the Empire is not worthy of worship, the second beast in Revelation 13 must coerce people to worship the image of the first. The metaphor of Rome as a drunken whore evokes negative images of the honors given to the empire. John boldly declares that it is not the Empire nor the Emperor who is the almighty savior of the world, but the ‘one who sits on the throne of heaven.”

In Revelation, God is worthy to be worshiped because of the nature of his character. He is the one who is thrice-holy (4:8), he is the only being in all of creation that has all power and strength (4:10). In fact, the reason for God’s worthiness is that he is the creator (4:11, 10:6) It is evident that since God is the creator of all things, he is sovereign over them and can use them in what ever way he chooses. In Rev 10:6 even the elements of nature declare to be creator.

God is also described as a just judge who will avenge the wrongs done to his people. This is a dominant theme in the book (6:10, 16:5, 18:20, 19:11, 20:4, 20:12), but is also part of God’s worthiness to be worshiped. When the seventh trumpet sounds in Rev 11:15, the 24 elders fall on their faces and worship God because he is the Almighty God who has begun to reign (11:17). The worship is based on the judgment of the nations: God is the destroyer of the destroyers of the earth! Chapter 11 ends with a theophany reminiscent of Mount Sinai.

I think that this perspective on Revelation as a book of worship will curb some of the more enthusiastic interpretations of the book.  It also brings the book back to the church as a worship texts.  Rather than fearing the strangeness of the book, we ought to worship the awesomeness of our God!

Bibliography:  Eugene Boring, “The Theology of Revelation, “‘The Lord Our God the Almighty Reigns,’” Int 40 (1986): 257-69.

Image result for Angels worshiping in heaven

Despite the fact the book has a great deal to say about coming events, Revelation is not a roadmap of the future.  It is, rather, an exhortation for today.  It is possible that people living in the tribulation will pick up the book of Revelation and see the things spoken of being fulfilled in their lives, but the people living at that time will be under a delusion (2 Thess. 2:11).  It is unlikely that those under the judgment of God will have the spiritual insight to believe what the book teaches (see Rev 6:12-17).   Revelation was intended to be read by the church living in the shadow of the Second Coming bearing up under persecution for their belief in Jesus, in order to encourage them to be strong and endure until the end.  As such, the book is an excellent conclusion to the Jewish-Christian literature in the NT.

I am convinced that the main theme of Revelation is worship.  The fact that God is worthy of our worship appears many times in the book.  There are several scenes of heavenly worship around the throne of God (Rev 5:13, 7:11-12).  The reason for God’s worthiness is that he is the creator (Rev 4:11)  It is evident that since God is the creator of all things, he is sovereign over them and can use them in what ever way he chooses.  In Rev 10:6 the elements of nature that God is declared to be creator of are the elements of creation that are used to judge in the book.

God is also described as a just judge who will avenge the wrongs done to his people.  Even this can be seen as a sub-theme of worship.  Rev 16:5, for example, describes an angel worshiping God as the one who is “just in all his judgments.”  In Rev 18:20, the saints are to rejoice because God has judged the Great Whore of Babylon.

Bibliography: M. Eugene Boring,“The Theology of Revelation, ‘The Lord Our God the Almighty Reigns,’” Interpretation 40 (July 1986), 261.

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Christian Theology

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