(HT: Father Frederick Schmidt)
(HT: Father Frederick Schmidt)
(This is the final post of our June series on the mystifying book of Revelation.)
Revelation is rich in so much theology: theologies of wrath and judgment and justice and repentance and hope and hospitality and reconciliation and restoration and inclusiveness and healing and communion.
There’s that wonderful vision of communion with Jesus in Revelation 21, which speaks of the the mystical marriage between the “bride” and the Lamb.
Recall that Jesus had identified himself with the figure of the bridegroom in Matthew, Mark and Luke too, the so-called Synoptic Gospels.
John’s gospel is always a tad different.
Understand that it was a Jewish custom for the bridegroom’s friend to wait with and watch over the bride until the groom came. So John in his gospel speaks directly of the bride when he tells us:
A wedding is a joyous affair, of course, in which intimate love and deep friendships are celebrated. John of Patmos reminds us in Revelation that Jesus loves the faithful with all the deep intimacy with which a bride and groom love each other.
This is how Jesus embraces us, as if he were in communion with us at a great wedding and feast. In the festive atmosphere of communion and hospitality that is a wedding, we shower the newlyweds with gifts for their new life together.
We celebrate with laughter and dancing and making joyful noise with family and the best of our friends to the point of tears.
Yet when the ultimate wedding communion comes and the groom appears in the completeness of glory, even tears, whether of suffering or joy, will be wiped away.
Forget the bogus “Rapture: It’s about the coming “Ecstasy.”
Until that time comes we wait and watch over one another and become less so that Jesus can become more to others.
Today’s final takeaway:
The promise of ecstatic communion with God and others makes Revelation an extension of the Good News of Jesus Christ Our Lord and Savior who showers us with the water of life as a gift.
The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
“And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”
— Revelation 22: 17
(This is Day 29 in our 30-day examination of the Bible’s Book of Revelation.)
Remember: John’s psychedelic vision is not an announcement that God plans to ruin the ecology or destroy the world; John’s vision is meant to supply his readers with fresh heart.
“God will do anything, enlist anything, to come to the aid of his people. ‘Therefore,’ says John to his readers, ‘however beaten-up you might be, don’t be beaten-down. God has not abandoned you to your suffering.'”
— Canadian preacher and Wesleyan theologian Victor Shepherd
Years ago I was “surfing the Net,” as they say, and came across a wonderful online theological source that features the writings, sermons and speeches of Canadian Victor Shepherd.
I’ve featured some of his notable quotes and insights here at the blog often, though it’s been a while.
Shepherd once gave a sermon on Revelation 16:1-23 that I saved in what I call my “keeper file” where I store quotes and sermons and articles and speeches that I might refer to for sourcing or research some day.
For this series on Revelation I came across Shepherd’s aforementioned sermon and I can see why I kept it: it’s definitely a “keeper,” chock full of incisive material on Revelation.
That said, it’s dated: Shepherd wrote and delivered this sermon way back in 1992, when the Soviet Union was still an “evil empire” to contend with!
As out-dated as it may be, the sermon still says a lot about oppressive, evil empires of the sort that John of Patmos and the early Christians had to contend with.
What I like about Dr. Shepherd’s work is that he knows his world history–he brings impressive historical context and depth to everything he writes or says.
So with no further of that old ado, here are some excerpts from Shepherd’s take on Revelation.
Or if you have the time and inclination, I urge you to read the whole wonderful sermon here.
Think, for instance, of the picture of a dragon which fumes and spews and vomits at the same time as it slays Christ’s people. Not only are the pictures vivid; they are also immense, grotesque, and surreal. They would appear to come out of a science fiction novel or a horror movie.
In fact most of John’s pictures he has borrowed from the books of Ezekiel and Daniel. Despite the fact that modern readers, at least initially, find John’s pictures off-putting, John expected his readers to find immense comfort and help and hope in the pictures.
You see, John’s first readers were undergoing savage persecution; he wrote as he did to provide comfort and help and hope for people whose suffering was intense and relentless.
As a matter of fact there are three books in the New Testament which were written specifically to sustain persecuted Christians: the gospel of Mark, the first epistle of Peter, and the book of Revelation.
In the year 65 Nero, the Roman emperor, began brutalizing Christians in a vicious outburst worse than anything which had victimized Christians so far. Several years later Nero committed suicide.
By the year 95 another Roman emperor, Domitian, picked up where Nero had left off. Persecution fell on Christians once again. The book of Revelation was written to provide comfort, help and hope to Christ’s people during Domitian’s reign of terror.
* * *
(ON TYRANNY IN THE 20TH CENTURY)
Think of the tyranny we have known in our own century, as well as the torture and torment connected with that tyranny. Stalin, Hitler, Pot Pol (the leader of the Khmer Rouge who liquidated millions), Mao Tse Tung, General Pinochet of Chile. What have all these men done? How many “ordinary” people cozied up to them, pretended to agree to the tyrant’s tyranny, were used by them, only to become inwardly what they thought they were only pretending to outwardly?
In other words, how many supporters of these wicked men came to be stamped with the mark of the beast themselves? By way of answering my own question I often think of Klaus Barbie, known as “the butcher of Lyon”. Barbie deported thousands of French Jews to extermination camps and tortured indescribably the leaders of the French resistance movement. When Barbie was finally arrested (only three or four years ago), tried and convicted, prior to being sentenced he was asked if he had any regrets. “Yes, there is something I regret”, he replied, “I regret that there is still a Jew alive in the world.”
(ON JOHN’S VISION & THE PLAGUES ON EGYPT IN EXODUS)
In his psychedelic vision John imagines those men and women who play up to tyrannical Rome breaking out into loathsome, foul-smelling sores. Plainly John’s vision is rooted in the plagues of Egypt.
You know the story of the seven plagues of Egypt. Pharaoh had enslaved and brutalized the Israelite people in Egypt. Through assorted instrumentalities God had pleaded with Pharaoh to let God’s people go free. Pharaoh had refused. And so another plague. After each refusal, another plague.
God’s purpose in all of this was not to torment Pharaoh; God’s purpose is to relieve the oppressed and liberate the enslaved. In much the same way, says John, God is going to shake the leaders and supporters of tyrannical Rome in order that Christ’s people might be relieved.
We must be aware of a most significant difference between the plagues visited upon Pharaoh and the judgement of God visited upon tyrannical rulers in Rome and ever since Rome. The plagues visited upon Pharaoh were sent in order to induce him to repent.
“Change, Pharaoh”, God shouts at him, “Change, repent, while you have opportunity to do so, and let my people go.”
The judgement visited upon Rome, however, is different. It does not aim at inducing Rome to repent.
John has no expectation that Rome will ever repent. None. Tyrants, together with their flunkies, plan on remaining tyrannical indefinitely; they are not about to change anything.
ON ‘FOUl SPIRITS,’ NAZI GERMANY & ARMAGEDDON
John has even more to tell us. In his vision he speaks of “foul spirits like frogs”. The foul spirits represent the stream of court flattery and lying propaganda which saturate any anti-human state. Oppressive regimes invariably use lying propaganda in order to deceive people and control them.
Court flattery is the grovelling seen in functionaries who think that flattery will keep them alive when sincere people are put away. John tells us that the foul spirits — flattery and propaganda — eventually stir up the kings of the world and provoke them into an alliance against Rome. Of course! Propaganda incites a people to overstep itself. Flattery blinds leaders and people to reality. The blind leaders incite a blind people who overstep themselves, and their aggression galvanizes opposition from other nations.
Within our own lifetime we need think only of Nazi Germany. The foul spirits (flattery and propaganda); opposition provoked in other nations; the alliance against Germany. The result? — the Reich that was supposed to last a thousand years as a demonstration of human superiority lasted only a few years and acquainted the world with new levels of depravity.
And when Nazi Germany had crumbled, when its kingdom was in darkness (in the words of John) the faithful people of God who had groaned within it groaned no more. Centuries earlier John had said to beleaguered Christians, “However beaten-up you might be, don’t be beaten-down, because God has not forgotten you and will deliver you.”
Armageddon, then, is not the world-ending nuclear holocaust which some people say God has ordained. Armageddon is any battle which the oppressors of this world provoke with other nations. Armageddon is the conflict in which other nations, provoked by a tyranny which has overstepped itself, become agents of God in releasing and relieving his people. …
Because the descendants of Pharaoh and Nero and Domitian are still with us, and because they still torment all who point them out and resist them, John’s psychedelic tract will always be relevant.
EDEN RESTORED & THE TREE OF lIFE
In concluding this sermon I want to leave something very important with you. Today we have probed together one chapter in a tract which aims at putting fresh heart in God’s people. Nonetheless, the chapter we have examined sounds utterly bleak, doesn’t it.
Ancient Rome, Mediaeval Arabia, Napoleonic France, Nazi Germany, the USSR — written off, all of them, since all of them have been the beast. All have had the fifth bowl of John’s vision emptied on them, and their kingdoms, without exception, have become darkness. Written off.
No! We must look to the last chapter of the book of Revelation. Listen to its opening words:
Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal,
flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the
street of the city; also, on the other side of the river, the tree of
life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month;
and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
John’s vision, ultimately, is of Eden restored. And into this paradise restored come the nations; to be sure, they are wounded, bloody, bleeding still from their former hostility to the Messiah-Lamb. Nonetheless, the tree of life, in this restored Eden, is for the healing of the nations.
Today’s take-away from Victor Shepherd is:
29. “Because the descendants of Pharaoh and Nero and Domitian are still with us, and because they still torment all who point them out and resist them, John’s psychedelic tract will always be relevant.”
(This is the 28th post in our June series about the mystifying and mysterious and ultimately beautiful Book of Revelation.)
In the final two chapters (21 and 22) of Revelation, John’s strange and seemingly gloomy vision comes to a beautiful climax.
It’s here that he takes us on a tour of the holy city, the “New Jerusalem,” which is ever-illuminated by the light of the Lamb of God.
The city is walled, and yet the gates are open. It’s the most inclusive city imaginable as people of all nations, all races are welcome.
In this city, there is no need for anybody, in a manner of modern speaking, to “lock the doors.” In this great metropolis there is no violence, no injustice, no ill will toward anyone.
A river runs through it. The river’s source is the throne of God and the Lamb. It’s banks are full of splendid trees with healthy fruits.
The leaves of the trees–these are not just any leaves.
They are for the healing not only of individuals, but of whole nations. These leaves have the power to heal you or me, but also Iraq and Russia and Syria and Israel and, for that matter, the U.S.A.
In this city, ain’t nobody and no nation feelin’ no pain.
28. Revelation is, at bottom, a reminder that God is the God of healing power, a reminder that we’re all broken, violent-prone people in need of God’s endless love, extravagant grace and healing powers.
(This is Day 27 of our 30-day consideration of Revelation, that much abused, misused and misunderstood final book in the Bible.)
Although Revelation is usually seen as a book of destruction, God’s fundamental identity is that of Creator. . . Revelation functions rightly when it invites us into worship. . .”
— Craig R. Koester, Vice President of Academic Affairs and New Testament scholar at Lutheran Seminary in Chicago
The Trinitarian God we worship and pray to is the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.
Being a “Creator” means that God is creative, not destructive.
Jesus (the Redeemer) never destroyed any lives; he didn’t even lash anybody when he was at his angriest with whip in hand in the Temple. The Holy Spirit (Sustainer) is at work 24-7 in this world, always moving in creative, constructive, healing ways.
That’s why so much “Rapture” and “Left Behind” and doomsday preaching that foresees a day when God will inflict pain and suffering and violent destruction on people is so ludicrous on the face of it.
* * *
Craig R. Koester, a keen Revelation scholar at Lutheran Seminary in Chicago, notes that in Revelation, God was introduced as the great Creator.
At an online Lutheran Seminary site Koester writes this of Revelation 4:1-11:
The one with the human face does not take the central place of God, but with all creation joins in praise of God. The elders are the heavenly representatives of the community of faith. As they cast down their crowns before the throne, they recognize that God and not the elders is Lord of all.
God is praised for being the Creator of all things. Although Revelation is usually seen as a book of destruction, God’s fundamental identity is that of Creator.
This scene anticipates the outcome of the book, where God’s purposes culminate in new creation. The words “holy, holy, holy” and the images of casting down crowns by heaven’s glassy sea have inspired many of the hymns we use in worship. Revelation functions rightly when it invites us into worship too — which we do as we add our voices to the song.
He refers back to Revelation 4 in this take on the “New Jerusalem” described in Revelation 21:1-6 and 22:1-5:
The defeat of the forces of evil does not bring about the annihilation of the earth.
Rather, it leads to God saying “I make all things new” (21:5).
God’s future includes the resurrection of the dead but does not stop there. When death is vanquished creation itself is made new. God’s future is pictured as a city with a garden at its center. The human world and natural world are reconciled here. The tree of life stands within the city with its gates of pearl.
These pearly gates are not guarded by Saint Peter as in the popular imagination. Rather the gates stand open all the time in order to invite people into the presence of God. Here the rivers that give life flow, the tree of life has leaves to heal the nations, and the radiant presence of God illumines the city. This is the future that beckons people everywhere.
Those who are gripped by such a vision in turn ask how such scenes of life might shape a way of life now. To live in anticipation of New Jerusalem is to embrace its way of life and to bear witness to the purposes of God, whose work as the author of creation and new creation is ultimately life.
27. “To live in anticipation of New Jerusalem is to embrace its way of life and to bear witness to the purposes of God, whose work as the author of creation and new creation is ultimately life.”
(This is Day 26 of our 30-day examination of the all-too-misunderstood Book of Revelation.)
Genesis and Revelation are the bookends to the entire story of how God works and will work in the world.
At the end of Revelation, in chapter 21, we envision with John of Patmos a new creation–a new heaven and earth–in which unity that was there “in the beginning” is re-established in a radical way.
Recall that in the beginning … day was divided into morning and evening. In the glorious end as seen in Revelation, there will be no more darkness (Revelation 21:25).
In the beginning … the earth, sea and sky were separated from each other (Genesis 1:9-10). In the end, “the sea will be no more” (Revelation 21:1).
In the beginning … the sun was there to light the day and the moon (Genesis 1:16). In the glorious end . . . a gorgeous new city will have the Lamb for a lamp. (Revelation 21:23).
* * * *
Genesis is the story of one collapse after another. In Genesis, humankind is so broken and sin-sick that families (and creation itself) are always breaking down.
If Genesis shows us anything, it shows that the “dysfunctional family” became the “new normal” a long, long time ago.
* * * *
The good news of Revelation is that a beautiful city of “pure gold” with foundations adorned of “every precious stone” will come down from heaven.
John, whose brilliant book of Revelation if full of Old Testament references, harks back to Genesis 2:10-12. In that scripture we find a river in Eden that waters the garden. It divides into four branches, the first being Pishon, which flows through a land of gold and other treasures.
In the new city, the angel leads John to the river of life-giving water that sparkles like crystal (Revelation 22:1). We end up seeing the wonderful “the tree of life.”
* * * *
In what is called “the beatific vision,” communion between humankind and God will be restored in a new way.
In the end, Paradise ruined with its tainted garden will be a new and improved Paradise in the form of a magnificent city.
* * * *
26. For all its imagery of gloom and doom, Revelation is, in the final analysis, a beautiful and divine gift.
Catch the vision and keep hope alive!
(This is Day 25 of our 30-day breakdown of the book of Revelation.)
To frame Revelation in military history terms …
American forces that landed at Normandy and pushed back the Nazis on D-Day won the war on that eventful day: from that day on the future belonged to the Allied forces.
And yet the ultimate victory was yet to be won–the American and Allied forces had a lot of challenging military work to do until the fullness of the war’s win at Omaha Beach was realized.
That’s how it is in the big Christian scheme of things. We know that the victory over death and evil was accomplished on Resurrection Day.
And yet . . . the victory has not yet been fully accomplished.
Until it is, we hope-filled Christians have work to do in advancing the kingdom of God and Heaven that Jesus ushered in. We still have our banners to carry in what are often thorny and even dangerous fields.
Richard Bauckham, the esteemed British scholar on Revelation who I’ve featured in this series about Revelation a couple of times before, has preached some wonderful sermons from the about the biblical book.
Here’s a quotable excerpt about living out the values of Jesus in this mad, mad, mad, mad world from one of Dr. Bauckham’s sermons on Advent, with my italics for emphasis:
Therefore, since we know that the future of the world is Jesus Christ’s future, we can live our own lives towards that future. We need not be taken in by the way the world seems to be going, we need not imagine that the way the world is the way it must be, we need not accept that the future belongs to the people and the forces that seem to have the power to create it and to destroy it.
In the end the future belongs to Jesus Christ. So we can live against the grain of our world, we can live out the values of Jesus, we can come alongside the suffering and the excluded, the neglected and the dying, we can oppose injustice and defy death, we can do all these things because–whatever appearances might suggest–they are the direction in which the future lies.
A lot of good things go on in our world that may not often make the headlines. There are people and groups and movements whose first priority is the sort of needy people Jesus cared most about. …
There are also people who work for peace and justice and the good of God’s creation in the corridors of power. We need to support them too with prayer and encouragement. These are the ways we can practice hope. These are ways we can live the conviction that the future belongs to Jesus Christ and to his priorities for the world. We cannot single-handedly create the future, which is God’s to give. But we can live in the direction of his future.
The whole sermon–“The Future of Jesus Christ”–can be found here.
25. “We cannot single-handedly create the future, which is God’s to give. But we can live in the direction of his future.”