Friday, December 10

Matthew 24:29-35: These verses, a very precise prophecy about a specific and definitive event, give the lie to any attempt to make Jesus a calm, benign, harmless teacher of general religious theory. This is a prophecy of His return to earth at the end of time, and the Christian Church has always read it that way.

We may consider first the end of time, indicated by the inability of the astral bodies any longer to govern day and night: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (verse 29). This is a destruction of the fourth day of Creation: “Then God said, ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth’; and it was so. Then God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. He made the stars also. God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:14-18).

The blotting out of the sun and moon also puts the reader in mind of the ninth plague of Egypt and the terror that accompanied that event.

The sun’s failure to give light was also spoken of in the Book of Isaiah, as characteristic of the Day of the Lord: “For the stars of heaven and their constellations / Will not give their light; / The sun will be darkened in its going forth, / And the moon will not cause its light to shine” (13:10; cf 24:23; 34:4). Other prophets spoke of covering that would prevent the heavenly bodies from giving their light (Ezekiel 37:2; Joel 2:10; 3:15), but the description here in Matthew seems more cataclysmic. One thinks of Joel 2:31 (“The sun shall be turned into darkness, / And the moon into blood, / Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord”) and how it was quoted in the first apostolic sermon (Acts 2:20).

In the Book of Revelation this image is associated with the sixth seal and the wrath of the Lamb (6:12-17).

In Matthew, unlike the Old Testament prophecies, this imagery is connected to the coming of the Son of Man. That is to say, in Matthew the darkening of the astral bodies is not only cosmological but also Christological. It represents not only the destruction of Creation but the end of history: It symbolizes the end of time.

In verse 30 the “sign” of the Son of Man precedes His appearance in the heavens. This sign should probably be understood as an ensign or banner. It appears with a trumpet blast, suggesting the approach of an army. It also directly answers the question of the apostles that had begun this whole discourse: “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (verse 3). That is to say, Jesus is still addressing that initial inquiry—How are we to know about the end of the world and the return of Christ?

The question of the Lord’s return in judgment was, from the beginning, an integral component of the Gospel itself. It was part of the call to repentance, as we see in the second apostolic sermon: “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:19-21).

So integral to the Good News was this second, judgmental coming of Christ that Paul was unable to omit it even from his sermon on the Areopagus, where he managed to omit even the message of the Cross: “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). It was simply part of the call to repentance and could not be left out.

This doctrine of Christ’s return is clear likewise from the epistolary literature, beginning with the first chapter of the earliest epistle: “For they themselves declare concerning us what manner of entry we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10). When Paul expands on this theme in the fourth chapter of that epistle, we observe that his point of emphasis—what most needed elucidation—was not the Lord’s return, which was taken for granted, but the resurrection of the dead in Christ (4:16-17).

His return will be a time of universal judgment, which is why “all the nations of the earth will mourn” (cf. Zechariah 12:10-12). All the nations of the world, as we shall see in Matthew 25, will be judged by the identical standard. Now allowance will be made for regional or cultural differences of ethics. On the contrary, it is the cultures themselves that will be judged. Hence it will make no difference whether this or that is “culturally acceptable.” This is why “all the tribes of the earth will mourn.” The Son of Man alone will determine the criteria of the final judgment.

It is no exaggeration to say that this claim of Jesus was the point on which the spiritual leaders of Israel condemned Him. This is indicated in the description of His trial before the Sanhedrin: “And the high priest answered and said to Him, ‘I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ Then the high priest tore his clothes, saying, ‘He has spoken blasphemy! What further need do we have of witnesses? Look, now you have heard His blasphemy! What do you think?’

They answered and said, ‘He is deserving of death’” (26:63-66).

In fact, this is the most monumental and definitive personal claim ever to be made by a human being—the claim to be the final arbiter of history, the ultimate adjudicator of the individual lives of all men, and the judge of all the nations.

It is the angels, we note in verse 31, who gather all men for judgment (cf. 13:49-50; 25:31).

As in all the Lord’s eschatological discourse up till now, the “subtext” is the Book of Daniel, to which explicit reference was made in verse 15. More specifically now, Matthew has in mind another scene from Daniel: “I was watching in the night visions, / And behold, One like the Son of Man, / Coming with the clouds of heaven! / He came to the Ancient of Days, / And they brought Him near before Him. / Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, / That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. / His dominion is an everlasting dominion” (Daniel 7:13-14). Matthew will return to this Danielic scene in the closing verses of his Gospel: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (28:18).

These prophecies are followed by an extended exhortation to vigilance (24:32—25:30). This exhortation begins with three illustrations, the first drawn from nature (verses 32-36), the second from biblical history (verses 37-44), and the third from common social expectations (verses 45-51). The first is the example of a fig tree, from which, Jesus says, we should “learn the parable” (mathete ten parabolen–verse 32). This lesson is of whole cloth with the constant pattern of Jesus to invoke the plants, animals, and other “natural” things in order to appreciate the mysteries of the Kingdom (cf. 6:26-30). In the present case Jesus goes to something in nature in order to understand something in history; as the nearness of summer can be perceived in the qualities of the fig tree, so the nearness of the Messiah’s coming can be perceived through certain historical indicators (verse 33). The Lord has already told us ahead of time what these indicators are (verse 25). These signs were already visible in the geopolitics, but especially the Jewish politics, of His own day. Consequently, He says, the generation that would witness its consummation was already alive: “Amen, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place” (verse 34). The generation that would see “all these things”–panta tavta–was already walking the earth. Saturday, December 11

Revelation 15:1-8: This shortest chapter in the Book of Revelation introduces the imagery of the seven bowls of plagues, which will be poured out in the next chapter.

The ocean of blood, with which the previous chapter ended, has now become a kind of Red Sea (verses 1-3), which also inserts the theme of the Exodus. This theme itself is appropriate to the outpouring of the plagues. Other components of the Exodus theme likewise appear in this chapter: the Song of Moses, the cloud of the divine presence, the tent of testimony, and so forth.

The "sea of glass"?(verse 2) we have already considered in Chapter 4. Beside this sea stand God’s people who have passed over it in the definitive Exodus. They are musicians, harpists to be exact, identical with the one hundred and forty-four thousand whom with saw with the Lamb in the previous chapter; there was harp music in that scene too.

These elect have "overcome," the very thing to which John had called the seven churches in Chapters 2-3. They are now beyond the power of the beast to harm them.

John sees in heaven the tabernacle of testimony from the Book of Exodus, the traveling tent of the divine presence that Moses and the Israelites carried through the desert. This tent, however, is "heavenly," which means that it is the original model, the very pattern that Moses copied (Exodus 25:9,40; ?Acts 7:44; Hebrews 8:5).

Since the tent is a place of worship, we are not surprised that John sees seven angels coming out of it, clothed in priestly vestments (verse 6; cf. Exodus 28:4; 39:29), very much as Jesus was clothed in the inaugural vision (Revelation 1:12-13).

The tent itself is full of the cloud of the divine presence, the very cloud that led the Israelites through the desert of old. When that tent was dedicated in the desert, the divine cloud took up residence within it (Exodus 40:34-38). That cloud later took residence in Solomon's temple (I Kings 8:1-12), where Isaiah beheld it (6:1-4). In prophetic vision, Ezekiel saw that cloud return to the second temple built in 520-516 (Ezekiel 44:4).

The hymn in verses 3-4 should be compared with Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the temple, as recorded in 2 Chronicles 6:14-42. Both prayers, to begin with, are offered "at the sea" (verse 2; 2 Chronicles 6:12-13). ?Both prayers thank God for His mighty works, invoke His righteous judgments, and request the conversion of all the nations. Finally, in response to each prayer, fire comes down from heaven (verses 5-8; 2 Chronicles 7:1-2).

Sunday, December 12

Revelation 16:1-9: Three of these four plagues are right out of the arsenal of Moses. Sores on the flesh of the bad guys (verse 2) were his sixth plague. As in the account in Exodus, the intent of this plague is that the idolaters should repent, but in neither case does it happen. The second and third plagues here (verses 3-4), the changing of water into blood, are identical to Moses’ first plague, which was regarded, we recall, as a rather easy plague, in the sense that even Pharaoh’s magicians could do it (Exodus 7:22).

Here, in Revelation, these two plagues are related to the great bloodshed of persecution caused by the enemies of God’s people (verse 6; 16:5-7). This crying out of the altar puts one in mind of the earlier scene where the souls (that is, the blood) of the martyrs cried from the altar (6:9-10). In that earlier scene the saints prayed for justice to be done on earth, for the righteousness of God to be vindicated in history. Now, in the present instance, the voice from the altar praises God that such justice has been done, that God’s fidelity has been made manifest. The fourth plague does not appear in Exodus at all; Moses had been able to blot out the sunlight, but not even he was able to make the sun hotter. Even this plague, nonetheless, does not bring the idolaters to repentance (verse 9).

Psalm 63 (Greek and Latin 62); Most men seem not to know it, but a longing for union with God is native to the human soul. Using images of both adherence and pursuit, the present psalm expresses this quality of the soul in a verse that largely defies condign translation into standard English—ekollethe he psyche mou opiso sou—adhaesit anima mea post te. This would literally read: “My soul stuck fast after You.”

This natural, in-built longing within the human spirit to know, praise, and be united with God is that of which Saint Augustine spoke in the famous line in the beginning of his Confessions: “You move us to delight in praising You, for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You. . . . And those who seek the Lord will praise Him. For those who seek will find Him, and those who find Him shall praise Him. Let me seek You, Lord, in calling upon You, and call upon You in believing in You.”

This psalm’s aspirations after God, nonetheless, express a more than human longing, for the desire of our hearts is itself transformed by the Holy Spirit. The inner activity of the Holy Spirit is not something merely added to a human amorphous yearning. Only the Holy Spirit can turn the soul’s innate thirst into a prayer pleasing to God: “Not only that, but we also who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves. . . . Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:23, 26).

Just as the Holy Spirit is the source of the Church’s faith (cf. Romans 8:14; 1 Corinthians 12:3; Galatians 4:6) and her charity (cf. Romans 5:5), so is He the fountain of her hope. This is truly the Spirit of longing, for He causes us to yearn for God well beyond even our own ability to aspire.

The Spirit’s prayer in our hearts is the one that the Father reads: “Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is” (Romans 8:27). As one of the Bible’s most intense prayers of yearning, the words of Psalm 63 open the mind to what the Holy Spirit prays to God within us.

Monday, December 13

Revelation 16:10-21: The final three bowls of plagues stand parallel to two other biblical texts: the plagues of Egypt in the Book of Exodus and the trumpets from earlier in the Book of Revelation.

The darkness of the fifth bowl (verse 10) corresponds to the ninth plague in the Book of Exodus (10:21-29). The sixth bowl, the drying up of the Euphrates, includes the proliferation of frogs, which corresponds to Moses’ second plague against Pharaoh (Exodus 8:2-6). The hailstones that accompany the seventh bowl (verse 21) are parallel to Moses’ seventh plague against Egypt (Exodus 9:13-26).

There are also parallels between these three bowls of plagues and the three final trumpets that appeared earlier in Revelation. Thus, the fifth bowl (verse 10), like the fifth trumpet (9:1-2) causes darkness over the whole earth. The sixth trumpet brought forth an invading army from east of the Euphrates (9:12-19); so does the sixth bowl (verse 12). Finally, at both the seventh trumpet and the seventh bowl there are bolts of lightning, peals of thunder, and an earthquake (verse 18; 11:19).

The sixth bowl of plagues here is a composite. There is, first of all, a drying up of the Euphrates, so that the Parthian armies can march westward. This puts one in mind of the drying up of the Jordan, so that the Israelites could move west against the Canaanites. Because of the great difference between the two instances, however, this symbolism should be read as an example of theological “inversion” (in the sense used by John Steinbeck, who often employs biblical symbols in this way), so that the identical image is used for both good and bad meanings. With respect to the drying up of the Euphrates, John knew a precedent in Jeremiah (50:38), who spoke of the drying up of the waters of Babylon, to facilitate its capture by the Persians. Indeed, John will have a great deal to say about the fall of Babylon.

Verse 15 contains a well-known saying of Jesus, in which He compares His final return to the coming of a thief in the dead of night. This dominical saying is preserved in the Gospels of Matthew (24:43) and Luke (12:39).

The final battle takes place at Armageddon (verse 16), which literally is “hill of Megiddo.” Megiddo sits on the edge of the Plain of Esdralon and was in antiquity the site of two famous battles, in each of which a king was killed. In Judges 5 the Canaanite king Sisera was slain there, and 2 Kings 23 describes the death of Josiah in the same place in 609. In John’s mind, Armageddon symbolizes disaster, catastrophe, and violence.

Tuesday, December 14

Revelation 17:1-18: John’s vision of the woman on the scarlet beast is better understood if one bears in mind certain features of his cultural and religious memory.

First, Israel’s prophetic tradition had fought against ritual prostitution, one of the standard religious practices of Canaanite religion, which Israel’s prophets for centuries struggled to replace. This tradition frequently spoke of idolatry under the metaphor of fornication, a metaphor further suggested by the prophetic perception of Israel as bound to God by a spiritual marriage. This perception is well documented in two prophets of the eighth century, Hosea and Isaiah.

Second, a century earlier Elijah had opposed the immoral cult of Baal, which was sponsored by the Phoenician princess Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab. For this reason, Jezebel came to personify, in Israel’s memory, the witch, the wicked woman of loose morals. As in the instance of Naboth’s vineyard, as well as in the death of many prophets, she was also remembered as a woman responsible for the shedding of innocent blood; Elijah complained that she had put a price on his own head. All of this has been on John’s mind; he has already described a certain woman at Thyatira as a Jezebel (2:20-23). The memory of Jezebel is certainly part of the picture of John’s image of the woman on the scarlet beast.

Third, Israel’s wisdom tradition, especially as found in the Book of Proverbs, spoke of Wisdom as a man’s true bride, in intimacy with whom he was to spend his whole life. Opposed to this bridal wisdom was the “loose woman,” Dame Folly, personified in the prostitute. This opposition undoubtedly arose from the simple observation that a good marriage to the right woman teaches a man, if he is teachable, how to conduct his life well and wisely, whereas that same man is brought to ruin if he consorts with a meretricious woman. The whore, then, was as bad a figure in Israel’s wisdom literature as she is in the prophetic literature.

Fourth, John seems also influenced by certain infamous and profligate women in the more recent history with which he was familiar. In the previous century, for example, there had been the famous femme fatale, Cleopatra, while in his own lifetime John knew of Herodias, whose success in murdering John the Baptist surpassed even Jezebel’s efforts against Elijah.

Even more recent to John’s time was Berenice, the daughter born to Herod the Great in A.D. 28. If any woman of John’s era could be seen as a whore of international fame, it was Berenice, of whose activities we know chiefly from the historian Josephus. By the year 48 she had been widowed twice—once from her own brother, to whom she bore two children. For several years she lived in incest with another brother, Agrippa II, in whose company we find her at the trial of St. Paul in Acts 25:13,22-23; 26:30. Shortly after this, Berenice was married to King Polemo of Cilicia, but she did not stay long with him. During this period of her life she was mocked by the poet Juvenal (Satires 6). Later on, according to Tacitus (Histories 2.2) and Suetonius (Lives of the Caesars, “Titus” 7), she was the mistress of Titus, who was obliged to abandon her in order to become emperor, Dio Cassius tells us (66.15). When John described a “loose woman,” in short, none of his readers were at a loss to know what sort of woman he had in mind.

Fifth, the woman in this vision is certainly the personification of the city of Rome, sitting on her seven hills. John did not have to personify Rome; it was already done by Rome’s political endorsement of the goddess “Roma,” in whose honor John knew of temples at Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamos. In the east, Roma had also been assimilated with certain local and traditional fertility goddesses.

The woman here is not only a whore; she is a drinker of innocent blood, in the tradition of Jezebel and Herodias, the latter remembered especially in the Asian churches as the one responsible for the death of their beloved John the Baptist. Clothed in scarlet and adorned with gold, she appears as a sort of queen, whom John calls Babylon, much in the style of Jeremiah 51:12-17, a text that must be read in connection with John’s vision.

We have already seen why the number seven is the symbol of perfection. Now, in the assertion that the seven heads of the beast are “seven hills” (verse 9), the seven is inverted to serve as a parody of perfection and completion; that is, perfect and complete evil. The seven hills are, of course, the seven hills on which sits the city of Rome, the urbs septicollis, as Suetonius called it (The Lives of the Caesars “Domitian” 5). Classical literature is full of references to this topographical feature of the city (Vergil, Aeneid 6.783; Georgics 2.535; Horace, Odes 7; Ovid, Tristia 1.5.69; Martial, Spectacles 4.64; Cicero, Letters to Atticus 6.5). In short, “the woman you saw is that great city” (verse 18). The seven heads also put one in mind, of course, of the mythological seven headed Hydra of many ancient sources, from early Canaanite myths to The Labors of Hercules.

When the angel goes on to identify the heads with seven kings (verse 10), the identification is less clear. Various speculations are possible in this respect. For instance, if we count Julius Caesar as the first emperor instead of Augustus, then the sixth “head” in verse 10 would be Nero, whom we know to have been a persecutor of the Christian Church. It is not necessary to be quite so literal, however; it may be the case the seven here is to be taken as a symbol for the whole, much as the seven churches of Asia are symbolic of the whole Church. (After all, there were certainly more than seven Christian churches in Asia at the time. There was the church at Colossae, for instance, to which St. Paul wrote an epistle.)

Likewise, it is not necessary to be too specific about the ten horns that represent ten kings in verse 12; it is possible that the image serves no purpose except that of reminding us of the ten kings in the Book of Daniel, an image we examined earlier. The important thing to remember is that these coming ten kings will finally destroy Babylon/Rome itself (verse 16). That is to say, the demons ultimately destroy those who work for them.

Verse 14 speaks of the war between the beast and the Lamb. Lambs generally do rather badly in combat with beasts, causing us to recall that Jesus conquered evil by being defeated by it. All Christian victory involves the Cross.

Wednesday, December 15

Revelation 18:1-10: This chapter deals with the city of sin, Babylon. It is not a prophecy of the downfall of Rome, such as that of A.D. 410 for instance, but an affirmation of hope for the downfall of what the pagan Roman Empire stood for.

In this vision a bright angel is seen; the very earth is illumined by his brightness. He appears with a message of concern for everyone who suffers oppression. His message (verse 2) is a direct quotation from Isaiah 21:9, and the imagery reminds us of the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah. The overthrow of this city is related to its place in the world of economics and commerce (verse 3), which John sees to be idolatrous (cf. Colossians 3:5).

John’s complaint against the economic and commercial idolatry of his time should be regarded against the background of the Bible’s prophetic literature, especially the prophecies of Amos and Isaiah, who spoke out frequently against the unjust practices of the business world that they knew: price fixing, monopoly, widespread unemployment, and so forth. Actually, such considerations are among the most common in the Bible.

John’s exhortation is that the believers get out of Babylon (verse 4), which is a direct quotation from Jeremiah 51:45. In that latter text the Jews were being exhorted to flee Babylon so as not to share in that ancient city’s peril. “Going out of” a place in order not to share its destruction is a theme that appears rather often in Holy Scripture. One thinks of Noah and his sons “getting out” by building the Ark, for instance. Lot and his family are led out of Sodom by the angels, and the Israelites flee Egypt, and so forth. In Chapter 12 the woman in heaven was given two eagle’s wings so that she could flee to the desert, and in the gospels Jesus tells His disciples to flee Jerusalem prior to its destruction. The spiritual message in all this is that those who belong to Christ must put some distance between themselves and those elements of existence that are inimical to man (cf. John 17:6,11,14-16).

Luke 1:1-4: Both Luke’s Gospel (1:3) and the Book of Acts (1:1) are addressed to a man named Theophilus, whom Luke calls “most excellent” (kratistos). This honorific adjective, which in antiquity a person might use when approaching someone of a higher social class than himself, was deemed especially appropriate for addressing government officials. Indeed, Luke himself provides three examples of this usage: the letter of Lysias to the governor Felix (Acts 23:26), an address to the same man by Tertullus (24:3), and St. Paul’s speech to the governor Festus (26:25). It is not surprising, then, that many interpreters of Holy Scripture think Theophilus was a Roman political figure. This is an attractive and likely suggestion. Many of these same biblical interpreters go on to contend that Theophilus was perhaps a sympathetic Roman ruler, but still a pagan, whom Luke was endeavoring to persuade of the truth of the gospel. They argue, in other words, that Luke’s intent in these two books was largely apologetic, rather much like Paul arguing his case before Festus and Agrippa (26:2–23). These exegetes believe that Luke was thus recommending the merits of the Christian faith to the official Roman world as represented in Theophilus. One may mention two reasons for believing that this line of interpretation is not very likely. First, though the Book of Acts does contain several apostolic speeches of an apologetic nature, Luke’s two works on the whole are not marked by the directness and simplicity normally characteristic of an apologetic case. As many of those same biblical interpreters have shown, Luke’s thought and style are theologically very complex and subtle. He was clearly directing his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles to mature believers already inside the Church. Second, Theophilus himself was certainly no pagan, because Luke explicitly mentions his having been “catechized” (katechetheis, Luke 1:4). This expression means that Theophilus had already received the normal basic instruction given within the Christian Church (1 Corinthians 14:19; Galatians 6:6). His experience in this respect was doubtless identical to that of Apollos, who also was “catechized” by Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:25). The basic catechesis among Christians was essentially oral rather than literary. Indeed, this is indicated even by the etymology of the word “catechesis”: kata-echo, “by way of echo,” an expression suggesting much recourse to repetition. The fundamental teaching in the Church was to have an echo quality, involving a generous amount of “repeat after me.” Truly, this is how the gospel itself is handed on to each new generation of believers: “I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you” (1 Corinthians 11:23). Catechesis is thus no place for innovation and experiment. Nonetheless, the New Testament also indicates that deeper explorations and more detailed explanations were provided for Christians who had already been catechized in the basics. The Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, clearly distinguishing between these two types of teaching (5:12–6:2), says, “let us go on to perfection.” Similarly, it was Luke’s intention to provide Theophilus with a deeper, more detailed, and “perfect understanding” of the doctrines of the faith, “just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us” (Luke 1:2–3). It was to furnish this further instruction that Luke composed his Gospel and the Book of Acts. Luke had in mind, of course, that these books would be read by other Christians besides Theophilus, and we would surely be mistaken if we imagined these books were intended for a private library. On the contrary, both works were composed for the very purpose which, in fact, they have always served in the Church; namely, the public proclamation of God’s Word within the church’s worship. Indeed, both books make pointed references to God’s people assembled for worship. Why, then, is Theophilus himself the person addressed at the beginning of each work? Unless he is to be understood as a purely literary addressee, like the “Malcolm” of C. S. Lewis, the most reasonable explanation is that it was Theophilus who made the production of these books possible. At the very least this means that Theophilus supported Luke while he wrote the Gospel and Acts. All of us, in this case, are very much in his debt.

Thursday, December 16

Revelation 18:11-24: And why is the fall of Babylon so bad? Because it is bad for business! Babylon’s overthrow means very low profits on the stock market. Verses 12-13 list various products that won’t sell any more. The “futures” in frankincense and chariots are down by sixteen points, and the shekel is in free fall!

Everyone calls it a “crisis,” and they are right. In fact, John uses the Greek word krisis (“judgment”) to describe it (verse 10). The crash, when it comes, comes quickly, in a single hour (verses 10,17,19). John says that those who weep over Babylon do so from a distance (verse 10). That is, Babylon has mourners, but no helpers. At this final hour of her career, no one will stand with her. No one wants to be associated with her. She is part of an order in which true friendship has no place. It is an order founded on shared interests and profits, not on love. Babylon is bewailed, not for herself, but for her lost investments. In short, the fall of Babylon is bad for business, and John borrows heavily from Isaiah 23 and Ezekiel 27 in order to describe her plight.

We observe that John does not see Babylon fall. An angel tells him that it has already happened. John, that is to say, has no violent vision. There is no projection, here, of a vindictive spirit; it is, rather, the divine resolution of a cosmic problem. The fall of Babylon is not seen; it is revealed to John in a vision of light. John is not interested in revenge but in justice, in the setting right of the world order, and the right order of the world requires the overthrow of Babylon and idolatry, and materialism, and that hedonism for which Babylon stands as a symbol. Her fall is particularly related to her shedding of blood (verse 24). Babylon is thrown into the sea like a stone (verse 21). She is swallowed up in her own chaos (cf. Jeremiah 51:60-63; Luke 17:2,24-30).

John particularly notes the loss of musical instruments and technology, components of human life first devised by the sons of Cain (Genesis 4:17-30). Indeed, there has often been something a bit ambiguous about such music, morally considered. When King Nebuchadnezzar employed “the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music” for his idolatrous purposes, it was not the last instance when instrumental music served to deflect men from the worship of the true God. In fact, nonetheless, God designated musical instruments as appropriate to His own worship in the tabernacle and the temple. And, once again, in the Bible’s final book heaven resonates with the sounds of trumpet and harp, whereas the damned are forever deprived of such music! The sinful descendents of Cain, the very inventors of harp and flute, will never hear them again.

Friday, December 17

Revelation 19:1-10: The previous chapter spoke of the destruction of Babylon, pictured as a woman dressed in scarlet. The present chapter speaks of a contrasting woman, dressed in white, who is called the Bride. A wedding is planned. There is no vision of the Bride just yet, however, nor does John specifically identify her. He will see and describe her in Chapter 21.

We begin the chapter with the “Alleluia.” Although our own experience may prompt us to associate that fine prayer with the sight and scent of lilies, here in Revelation it resounds against the background of smoke rising from a destroyed city. The worship scene portrayed here is related to victory over the forces of hell. The word “avenge” at the end of verse 2 reminds us there is a principle of vengeance built into the theological structure of history, for the judgments of God are true and righteous. Sodom and Gomorrah come to mind when we read of this smoke ascending for ever and ever. The worship becomes so warm at verse 6 that Handel decided to set it to music.

By portraying the reign of God as a marriage feast, John brings together three themes, all of them familiar to the Christians of his day: First, the kingdom of God as a banquet, such as we find in Isaiah 25:6. Jesus interpreted the banquet, however, as a marriage feast (Luke 14:15-16). John stresses readiness for the feast (verse 7), much as we find in the parable of the ten maidens at the beginning of Matthew 25.

Second, the marriage theme itself, as a symbol of the union of God with man. We find this theme in the prophets (most notably Hosea, but also Isaiah and Jeremiah) and the New Testament (Ephesians 5:32, for instance). The Lamb, who is the groom here, has already been identified earlier in Revelation.

Third, the theme of the garments, which now become the clothing required for attendance at the feast. John has appealed to this imagery several times already (3:4; 6:11; 7:14). The identification of the white garments with righteous deeds puts one in mind of the parable in Matthew 22:11-13.

Luke 1:26-38: Luke’s earliest reference to the Holy Spirit comes in a line where Gabriel to speaks to Zacharias about John the Baptist: “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15).

This striking prophecy is fulfilled only twenty-six verses later, when the unborn infant’s response to this filling with the Holy Spirit is to jump for joy inside his mother’s body. Indeed, the mother herself is filled with the Holy Spirit: “And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41).

Furthermore, Elizabeth credits this outpouring of the Holy Spirit to the sound of Mary’s voice: “For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy” (1:44).

And what does the Holy Spirit prompt Elizabeth to say to Mary? “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (1:42). This is the way that one addresses the Mother of God, if one is filled with the Holy Spirit.

This point is emphatic. The word “blessed” in Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary is not the makarios, or “happy,” of the Beatitudes (though this is used in the same context in Luke 1:45, 48). It is, rather, eulogemene, the participle of the verb “to bless.” This particular “blessed” is of the same root as the “blessed” (eulogetos) in Zacharias’s “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel,” a detail surely significant inasmuch as Zacharias himself is also described in that passage as “filled with the Holy Spirit” when he said it (1:67–68). Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary was bound to become part of the faith and piety of God’s Church, inasmuch as it is explicitly said to have been given by the Holy Spirit. Like “Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15) and “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3), “Blessed are you among women” is a pronouncement prompted by the Holy Spirit. “Blessed are you among women” pertains to the Spirit-given substance of the Christian faith. Like Elizabeth who “cried out with a loud voice,” Christians render this identical greeting to the one whom they know as “the mother of my Lord” (1:42–43).