Friday, December 16
Revelation 14:1-16: Now we come again to the sealing of the followers of Christ, first spoken of in Chapter 7. With respect to the “following” of the Lamb (verse 4), of course, the image is found also in the Gospels. When Jesus calls on His disciples to “follow” Him, the context is the Cross. The Lamb to be followed is the Lamb of sacrifice (Mark 8:34-38; John 21:18-19).
There are three angels in this text, representing three dimensions of the final age, the proclamation of the Gospel, the judgment of God on the city of man, and the eternal, wrathful exclusion of idolatry. First, the angel of the everlasting Gospel (verse 6), whose mandate, like the mandate at the end of Matthew, is directed to all nations. These are all called to repentance and conversion to the true God (verse 7; cf. Acts 14:15). Remember that in John’s view, the judgment of God is now. The judgment of God takes place in the very proclamation of the Good News (cf. John 3:19; 18:37). The Gospel here is called eternal; it is the proclamation of the eternal mind of God, His eternal purpose of salvation, the “Mystery” of which the Epistle to the Ephesians speaks.
Second, the angel who proclaims the fall of Babylon (verse 8). This, too, pertains to the Gospel. In biblical thought, the fall of Babylon means that the true Israelites can now go home, because the exile is over. Babylon is whatever enslaves and alienates the people of God. Babylon is the city of false gods, the city that dares to raise up its tower against the face of God; it is the monument to man’s achievements without God. Babylon is the city where men do not understand one another, because each man, as it were, speaks his own private meaning. The downfall of this city certainly is Good News, which is the meaning of the word Gospel. Christians are called to leave Babylon (18:4).
Third, the angel who proclaims the eschatological outpouring of God’s wrath, to the exclusion of all idolatry (verses 9-11). This text is important because, like certain sayings of our Lord in the Gospels, it insists on the eternity of damnation. Unlike many modern men, the Bible believes that the definitive choice of evil lasts forever.
The Son of Man on the cloud is, of course, from the Book of Daniel, an image that Jesus interprets of Himself in each of the Synoptic Gospels.
Saturday, December 17
Revelation 14:17—15:8: The amount of blood in this text (verse 20) is rather dramatic. The Greek stadion being six hundred and seven feet, sixteen stadia is about two miles. A horse’s bridle is about five feet off the ground. Thus we are dealing with a great deal of blood. This must be one of the most unpleasant passages in the New Testament.
Chapter 15, the 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 we 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.
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 18
Matthew 1:1-17: The Evangelist, St. Matthew, as though encouraging the preacher to deliver a three-point sermon on the subject, is careful to break the genealogy of Jesus into three parts. He writes, “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations.”
This very simple chronological sequence thus divides salvation history—from Abraham to Jesus—according to the history of the monarchy. Thus, the three sections are pre-monarchical, extending from the 18th century before Christ to the beginning of the 10th; then, the period of the monarchy, from the year 1000 to the Babylonian Captivity in the 6th century; and finally, the post-monarchical period, from the sixth century, starting in 538, to the birth of Jesus.
Saint Augustine speculated that the period from Abraham to David could be called man’s adolescence—adulescentia, whereas his “youth” (iuventus, classically understood as the period between ages twenty and forty) began with David. This is why, says Augustine, history is divided at this point (The City of God 16.43).
If one observes it closely, Matthew’s historical division also corresponds roughly to the three parts of the Hebrew canonical Scriptures: the Torah in the pre-monarchical period, the Prophets during the monarchical period, and the Writings during the post-monarchical period.
One of the most striking features of this genealogy is indicated in verse 16. After fifteen verses tracing what one would naturally think to be the biological lineage of Jesus of Nazareth (very much like the various genealogies in the Old Testament), we suddenly learn that it is nothing of the sort. We are minutely instructed with respect to the biological lineage of Joseph, only to be informed that there existed no biological link between Joseph and Jesus! There is a great irony in this legal—as distinct from biological—lineage. Supremely the Heir to God’s covenants with Abraham and David, Jesus is in no way dependent upon them. On the contrary, the final significance of Abraham and David is derived entirely from their relationship to Jesus.
Monday, December 19
Luke 1:1-25: Among the Evangelists, however, it is in Luke that we first meet a historian, in the full sense of someone who explicitly and consciously thought of himself as "doing" history. In the first prologue affixed to his double work, Luke described his enterprise in exactly this way, saying, "it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account" (Luke 1:3).
Aware that he was about to do something different, Luke spoke of the earlier efforts of those who had "taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us." Of this group, which certainly included Mark, Luke was not critical, because they too had relied on "those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word" (1:1-2). Nonetheless, Luke was aware he was embarking on a venture new to Christian literature, and I believe a close, critical study of his work will show what he had in mind to do.
In the prologue St. Luke attached to his Gospel, it is clear he was explicitly and self-consciously endeavoring to write an account of Jesus that would meet the standards of what the readers of his day called “history,” that is, an orderly, directed, carefully-researched narrative of historical facts. He announced,
Whereas many have set their hands to compose a narrative (anataxsasthai diegesin) of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, since I have followed everything carefully (akribos) from the first, to write to you in an orderly way (kathexses soi grapsai), most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the reliability (asphaleian) of those things in which you were catechized.
We observe that Luke lists three kinds of sources he consulted in his close investigation of the subject: earlier writers, the testimony of apostolic eyewitnesses, and his own search for personal stories. It is useful to comment briefly on each of these sources:
First, there were earlier written forms of the Gospel story available to Luke (“many have set their hands to compose a narrative”). One of these, without doubt, was the Gospel of Mark, on which he seems to have relied closely in so many scenes of his narrative. Moreover, in most scenes common to Mark and Luke, Luke normally followed Mark’s narrative sequence.
Second, there was data from the apostolic preaching (“eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us”). As we may discern from the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline epistles, Luke was well connected with all aspects of the extensive missionary work of Christians in cities and towns around the Mediterranean Basin. He enjoyed ample opportunity to learn many details of his subject directly from apostolic preachers, especially eyewitnesses of Jesus’ miracles and teaching.
Third, Luke did his own investigation (“I have followed everything carefully from the first”). More literally, Luke claims that he “followed everything from the top (anothen).” Indeed, this pursuit “from the top” is readily perceived in the Lukan narrative, inasmuch as he begins the story of Jesus at a much earlier stage than either Mark or the apostolic preaching. Luke goes back past Jesus’ baptism by John to write of His conception, birth, His first visit to the Temple, and even His significant event when He was twelve years old. Luke does some of the same for John the Baptist. To accomplish this, he took advantage of a source not consulted by either Mark or the apostolic preaching, and I have argued elsewhere that this source could only have been the Mother of the Lord.
Other evidence of Luke’s recourse to firsthand narrative reports includes the stories of Jesus’ visit to the synagogue at Nazareth (4:16-30), the bereaved widow at Nain (7:11-17), Mary and Martha (10:38-42), the crippled woman in the synagogue (13:10-17), the healing of the servant’s ear (22:51), and Jesus’ inquisition before Herod (23:6-12).
Tuesday, December 20
Luke 17:1-18: The number seven, all through Holy Scripture, is the number of fullness, or 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 whom 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 21
Revelation 18:1-8: 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).
Thursday, December 22
Revelation 18:9-24: And why is the fall of Babylon so bad? Because it is bad for business! Babylon’s overthrown 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 was part of an order in which true friendship had no place. It was 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 the 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 23
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.