Friday, December 14
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 bowl (verse 12), like the sixth trumpet, brings forth an invading army from east of the Euphrates (9:12-19). Finally, at both the seventh bowl and the seventh trumpet 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 Esdraelon 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 there in 609. In John’s mind, Armageddon symbolizes disaster, catastrophe, and violence.
Saturday, December 15
Matthew 25:31-46: As we prepare for the feast that celebrates the first coming of Christ, we have been reading three chapters of Matthew concerned with his Second Coming. The present parable, which describes the Last Judgment, provides a vivid account of the end of history. In this parable Jesus describes Himself in three ways: as judge, as brother, and as teacher. We may take these in order.
First, Jesus appears in this parable as the final judge of the whole human race:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats.
We do well to reflect on the extraordinary nature of Jesus’ claim—the claim to be the final arbiter of universal history. Clearly, the early Christians appreciated the uniqueness of that claim. St. Paul announced to the Athenians that God “has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained” (Acts 17:31). He was equally clear on the point when he wrote to the Corinthians: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
The world can hear this claim of universal judgment only with skepticism and ridicule. They hear it with skepticism because those who adhere to the world find it impossible imagine they are going to be judged at all, for the simple reason that there are no universal moral standards by which to judge them. Indeed, it is taken as axiomatic that no one can judge anyone else. And they hear this claim with ridicule, at the thought that they will be judged by someone they don’t even believe in.
Second, in this parable Jesus appears as our brother. Indeed, his brotherhood with other human beings is the very basis of his judgment: “Amen, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me. . . . Amen, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
Early Christian emphasis on the “common” quality of the Lord’s humanity indicated more than an ethical preference on Christ’s part. His complete solidarity with the rest of the human race was a condition, rather, of his ability to redeem the human race. Such was the force of the reference to Jesus as “born of a woman” in Paul’s account of the Son’s coming “to redeem those under the Law” (Galatians 4:4-5).
Jesus is especially our brother in dying for us. Thus, Paul speaks of “the weak brother for whom Christ died.” And he goes on to assert, “But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ” (1 Cor 8:11-12). We treat human beings as our brothers and sisters, because that is how Christ regards them.
In the immortal affirmation of C. Herbert Woolston, “Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight.” These awesome words were first heard in Chicago, where Woolston wrote them just before the Civil War.
“They are precious in his sight,” because he paid the price—pretium—for them. A Christian’s assessment of human worth is not based on a sentimental response, but on a fact—the historical fact of the death of Christ, the theological fact of the value of his blood. The outpoured blood of Christ is the price tag that hangs on the human being.
Human beings, that is to say, are never “marked down”; they are “marked up.” They are marked by the sign of that Cross on which their redemption was purchased. The blood of Jesus is the reason we hold all human beings are “precious in his sight.”
Third, Jesus appears today as our Teacher. This story of the Last Judgment is our Lord’s final parable before Matthew’s story of the Passion. It is the last word of Jesus’ public ministry. In this parable, our Lord discloses to us what he most wants us to know: He has made himself our brother, not only by assuming the conditions of our flesh, but by dying for us on the Cross. This is the thesis by which we are defined.
Each of us knows himself to be a blood-bought brother or sister of Christ, and he has left us a commandment that must guide our thinking and the entire measure of our lives: “”A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Sunday, December 16
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: We prepare to read the Infancy Narrative in Luke by looking at this unique introduction to his Gospel. Luke, besides consulting earlier written sources, such as the Gospel According to Mark, 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, his birth, his first visit to the Temple, and even a 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; this source could only have been the Mother of the Lord.
Monday, December 17
Revelation 18: 11-24: 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.
Tuesday, December 18
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 in “The Messiah.”
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: Mary, the mother of Jesus, was the living witness of the stories about herself and Joseph, the conception and birth of John the Baptist, the circumstances of Jesus’ conception, the trip to Bethlehem, the manger in the stable, the swaddling clothes, the angels and the shepherds, the Magi and their gifts, the reaction of Herod, Jesus’ circumcision, the presentation in the Temple, Simeon and Anna, and the dramatic event that occurred when Jesus was twelve years old. It was from Mary that Matthew and Luke knew these narratives.
Wednesday, December 19
Revelation 19:11-21: The chapter continues on a different theme: warfare (verses 11-21). Jesus, pictured before as the Lamb, is here portrayed as a warrior on a white destrier. The emphasis is on His vindication of justice, the motif with which the chapter began. He is called “faithful and true,” adjectives referring to Him in 3:14. These adjectives should be considered especially in the context of martyrdom. That is to say, when a person is about to die a terrible death for the name of Jesus, “faithful and true” are the words he needs to know with respect to Jesus. Like the martyrs, Jesus is here clothed in white. His eyes (verse 12) are flames of fire, much as in John’s inaugural vision (1:12-16). His garment (verse 13) is spattered with blood, a detail we saw in 14:18-20. The literary inspiration of this portrayal is the canticle in Isaiah 63:1-3.
One of the Christological titles found here is “king of kings and lord of lords,” a title going back to the ancient Assyrian emperors, who were kings over other kings. John tells us that this title appears on the “thigh,” of the Rider on the white horse. The thigh here is the place of the scabbard, where the sword hangs. It was common in antiquity to speak of the thigh as the place of the sword. With regard to Achilles, for example, Homer wrote: “And anger came on Peleus’s son, and within his shaggy breast the heart was divided two ways, pondering whether to draw from his thigh the sharp sword, driving away all those who stood between and kill the son of Atreus, or else to check his spleen within and keep down his anger” (Iliad 1.188-192). The same idiom is found in the Odyssey 11.231 and the Aeneid 10.788. The exact idiom is likewise biblical; “Gird your sword on your thigh, everyone of you,” commanded Moses to the Levites (Exodus 32:27). The expression occurs twice in Judges 3 and in Psalms 45 (44):3. Finally, in the Song of Solomon there is a description of the sixty valiant men around the king, “each with his sword upon his thigh, against alarms by night” (3:8). The title on the Warrior’s thigh, then, is inscribed on His scabbard.
The sword itself, however, is described as coming forth from His mouth, as in John’s inaugural vision in the first chapter. This image, of course, identifies the sword with the word, as in Hebrews 4:12 and Ephesians 6:17. The image of God’s word as a sword seems to have been very common among the early Christians, so we are not surprised to see it here. The Rider Himself is called “the Word of God,” in the only instance of this expression with reference to Jesus outside of the beginning of John’s Gospel.
The summoning of the scavenger birds in verse 17 is reminiscent of Ezekiel 39, which describes the defeat of the armies of Gog. We will say more about this battle scene in Ezekiel in our discussion of Revelation 20.
Thursday, December 20
Revelation 20:1-15: The most controversial part of this passage is the “thousand years,” to which several references are made. In order to prepare ourselves to understand John here, it may be useful to reflect on the literary image of the thousand years already well known to John. In the Judaism of John’s time there was the popular belief that the Messiah would reign on the earth a thousand years (as there was, more recently, in Hitler’s fantasy of a “thousand-year Reich”). This popular belief is extant in Jewish literature of the time, such as The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs and some sayings of famous rabbis. We also find a variation on this theme in the Dead Sea scrolls, which speak of the just who live a thousand generations.
John’s scene of the Messiah reigning with His loyal followers for a thousand years seems in large measure inspired by Daniel 7, in which God is portrayed as a very old man, the “Ancient of Days,” who would take the authority from the fourth beast and give it to God’s holy ones, those who are suffering persecution for His sake (Daniel 7:9-10,22,26-27). The early Christians were fond of this passage, because Jesus had identified Himself as the Son of Man, who appears in this same scene in Daniel (7:13-14).
We note that Daniel 7 speaks of “thrones” in the plural, which Christians understood to mean that they too would take part in the judgment of the beast. In other words, they too would sit on thrones along with the Messiah (Matthew 19:28). (Indeed, St. Paul would apply this idea to a practical ethical question that arose in the early Church, in 1 Corinthians 6:1-3). To say that the believers will judge does not mean, of course, that they will judge in the same sense that God does, because only God has access to the depths of the human heart.
Nonetheless, there is a true and genuine sense in which believers stand in judgment with Christ over history. In the Holy Spirit they are given to know which elements of history are good, and which bad; they are given to discern those components of history that are of value in the sight of God, and those that are not. That is to say, the disciples of Christ are forever passing true judgment over history. They are already on their thrones with the Messiah. The final judgment, at history’s end, will simply reveal that they were, all along, the authentic judges of history.
This, then, is their thousand years’ reign. It is that area of Christian experience in which Christians are already seated in the high places with Christ, already on their thrones, already judges of history. They are said to reign because they are not slaves to the beast and its image. Their reign, nonetheless, is not yet complete, because they still have ahead of them the battle with Gog and Magog.
Gog was already well known to readers of Ezekiel 38-39, who would scarcely have been surprised to hear of him, for it was the name of a person from the somewhat recent past. The Hebrew name Gog(or Gug) corresponds to the Assyrian (Gugu and the Greek Gyges. He was a famous seventh-century king of Lydia in Asia Minor, who had died in 644. Accounts of the original Gog are found in Assyrian annals and History of Herodotus. The name is not especially important for the identification of the invader; like all the other names in these chapters of Ezekiel, it is symbolic of evil realities much larger and more menacing than their historical references. Thus understood, Gog and his forces appear here in Revelation 20. (“Magog,” by the way, appears to be an abbreviation of the Hebrew min-Gog, “from Gog.” Here in Revelation he is a derived ally of Gog, much as, elsewhere in the book, one beast shares his authority with the other beast in 13:4.)
In verses 11-15 everything testifies to its own contamination by “fleeing” from the throne of God. In Chapter 4 John had seen that throne as the origin of all things, and now he sees it as the arbiter of history. Everything flees before it. This is the final judgment, and it belongs to God alone. Here we meet once again the image of the “Book of Life” that appeared earlier in 3:5; 13:8; 17:8.
Friday, December 21
Revelation 21:1-8: We now come to the final two chapters of John’s book of prophetic visions. Now we see no more battles, no more bloodshed, no more persecution. John sees, rather, the holy city, New Jerusalem, as the ultimate reality that gives meaning to all that preceded it.
In this final vision, which lasts two chapters, John is aware that seven things are gone forever: the sea, death, grief, crying, pain, the curse, and the night (21:1,4; 22:3,5). Here we are dealing with the definitive abolition of conflict, the end of chaos. The first symbol of this chaos is the sea, which has only such shape as it is given from outside of itself. The sea represents the nothingness out of which God creates all things, conferring meaning upon them. This chaos is both metaphysical and moral. It represents a nothingness replaced by the lake of fire, the second death. The sea is the hiding place of the monster and the setting where the scarlet woman thrones. This sea disappears at the coming of the new heaven and the new earth.
If we take the earth to represent man’s empirical and categorical experience, and heaven to represent man’s experience of transcendence, then the appearance of the new heaven and the new earth means the transformation of all of man’s experience. All of it is made new. The grace of God in Christ does not sanctify just a part of man’s existence, but his whole being. Man is not a partially redeemed creature. Both his heaven and his earth are made new.
Both heaven and earth are part of God’s final gift to man, the New Jerusalem, the “dwelling of God with man.” This dwelling, skene in Greek and mishkan in Hebrew (both, if one looks closely, having the same triliteral root, skn), was originally a tent made of “skins,” as the same etymological root is expressed in English. During the desert wandering after the Exodus, this tent of skins was the abode of God’s presence with His people. Indeed, sometimes the word was simply the metaphor for the divine presence (verse 3). For instance, in Leviticus 26:11 we read, “I will set My mishkan among you . . . . I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people.”
Luke 1:57-66: In the case of John the Baptist, faith began before he was born. His ears could already hear the prayers of his mother and father. He could already listen to the hymns they sang at home and in the temple. The sounds of their voices were already giving shape to his soul. In proportion to his tiny abilities, his culture was already taking shape. He was already assuming his place in history.
John held his identity as a matter of memory, memory earlier than his ability to recall critically. This memory, for John, was primitive, more aboriginal than mere recollection. The man that finally placed his neck on the block for beheading is the same person as the child that was awakened by the voice of the Virgin Mary as he nestled in his mother’s womb. Through all the vicissitudes of his life, there was a personal continuity in John the Baptist.