Friday, November 25
Luke 22:7-13: The time has now arrived, declares Luke. All the previous parts of his account have led to this moment. From the beginning of his story, when the life of the First Born Son was redeemed by two turtle dove or young pigeons (2:24), through the Lord’s entire earthly life, during which His face was steadfastly set toward Jerusalem, all has been directed to this hour when the Paschal Lamb (to Pascha; see also 1 Corinthians 5:7; Deuteronomy 16:26) would be offered and the new Exodus (9:31) inaugurated.
All this must happen, says Luke, using one of his typical words, dei (cf. 9:22; 13:33; 17:25; 24:7,26,44).
Luke is the only Evangelist to name Peter and John as the two apostles deputed to make the Seder arrangements for Jesus and the apostolic band (verse 8). Luke’s considerable attention to these two apostles (cf. Acts 3:1,3; 4:13,19; 8:14) suggests that they may have been among the chief sources of his information about the events of Holy Week. Indeed, among the three Synoptic Evangelists, Luke’s account most resembles that of John’s Gospel.
Revelation 3:14-22: We commented, with respect to the church at Philadelphia, that John had no criticisms to make about that congregation. Writing to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pegamos, Thyatira, and Sardis, John paid some compliments and made some criticisms. Writing to the Christians at Laodicea, however, John has nothing at all encouraging to say! He is unable to find a single item for which to praise that church. To John’s thinking, the church at Laodicea is a lackluster group of slackers living in an affluent, self-satisfied society. Although this church was evangelized by Paul’s companion Epaphras (Colossians 4:12-13), it has lost its fervor and is now mediocre (verse 16).
The secular city of Laodicea was famous for three things: (1) its large banking interests, (2) its textile industry, and (3) a special eye-salve that the great physician Galen called “Phrygian powder.” John alludes to all three things in verse 18, where the church at Laodicea is told to come to God for (1) gold refined in the fire, (2) clothing to cover its nakedness, and (3) a special anointing of its spiritual eyes. The Laodiceans must admit, in short, that they are “poor, blind, and naked” (verse 17).
There are three points of Christology to note in this letter to Laodicea: (1) Christ in the past; the relationship of Christ to creation (verse 14; cf. Colossians 1:15-18; Hebrews 1:1-3; John 1:3); (2) Christ in the present, exhorting and inviting His Church, communing with those who open to Him (verses 19-20; cf. 19:9; Luke 22:28-30); (3) Christ in the future, rewarding those who vanquish in His name (verse 21; cf. Matthew 19:28). The image of the divine throne appears over forty times in the Book of Revelation. The present mention of it prepares for John’s vision in the following chapter.
Saturday, November 26
Revelation 5:1-14: Because the earliest Christians were Jews, their experience of worship was tightly tied to the style of the synagogue. In the weekly worship at the synagogue, a special liturgical moment came when a reader took the Sacred Scroll of God’s Word, opened it, read it to the congregation, and then explained it.
For Christians, this solemn rite held a particular significance, because they believed that the Words of the Sacred Scroll were completed and fulfilled by Jesus the Messiah. Thus, the opening, reading, and interpretation of the Sacred Scroll was perceived as a symbol of what Jesus accomplished in His ministry, death, and resurrection.
There is a story bearing this symbolism in Luke 4:16-21, where Jesus Himself took, read, and interpreted God’s Word in the synagogue at Nazareth, finishing by referring the entire Text to himself. That Lukan passage at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry forms a literary inclusion with the action of Jesus at the end of Luke, where the wounded Lord (“Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself”) explains the meaning of Holy Scripture to the Church by referring it to His own ministry, death, and resurrection (24:25-27,32).
That is to say, the Church believes that the ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ the Lord have an exegetical quality; it is interpretation in act. This primitive conviction of the Christian faith that only Jesus can “open the Scroll” is at the heart of what John now sees in the throne room of heaven (verse 7). The Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, can open this Scroll precisely because He died and rose again (verse 9). This Lamb “stands” before God, standing being the proper posture of a priest (cf. Acts 7:55-56; Hebrews 10:11).
Although the image of Christ as the Lamb is common in the New Testament (John 1:29,36; 19:36; Acts 8:32; 1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Peter 1:18-19), it is utterly dominant in the Book of Revelation, where it appears twenty-eight times. The Lamb in Revelation 5 stands in His immolated, mactated state, “as though slain,” still bearing in His flesh the wounds of His Passion (cf. John 20:25,27). This picture of Jesus as the wound-bearing Lamb, opening the Scriptures, is strikingly parallel to that of the risen Lord at the end of Luke’s Gospel (Luke 24:38-46).
Two of the three short hymns in this chapter are addressed to Christ. The first is called a “new song,” an expression derived from the Book of Psalms and Isaiah 42:10-13. It is a “new song,” not in the sense of the “latest hit,” but because it comes from and gives expression to the definitive newness of life given us in redemption. The new song is of a piece with our new name, the new heaven, and the new earth. This is the eternal newness purchased by the blood of Christ (verse 9), who makes us kings and priests (verse 10; cf. 1:5-6; 1 Peter 2:5,9; Exodus 19:6).
Sunday, November 27<./b>
Revelation 6:1-8: The opening of the first four seals brings forth four horses, variously colored in a way reminiscent of Zechariah 1:8-11; 6:1-7, though in Revelation the attention is directed more to the riders than to the horses.
The first, the mounted archer on the white horse, symbolizes invasion and war. The mounted archers contemporary with John were the Parthian warriors to the eastern border of the Roman Empire (verses 1-2), on the far side of the Euphrates (cf. 9:14; 16:12).
The second rider, which is like unto it, rides a red horse symbolic of bloodshed and fire. Whereas the first horseman carried a bow, the second carries a sword (verse 4). War invariably leads to famine and starvation, symbolized in the third horse, a black one, whose rider carries a scales to measure the scant remaining food (verses 5-6).
Green, the color of the fourth horse, is the color of white human flesh at the beginnings of decay. The rider of this horse, therefore, is named Death, which perhaps is a metaphor for plague (verse 8), as in the common expression “Black Death” to mean bubonic plague. With war, famine, and disease, the populace is dying too fast to be buried; their rotting corpses are left for the beasts of the field. For this combination of evils, compare our text to Luke 21:9-11.
These afflictions were visited on the world that John knew. In A.D. 62 the Roman legions were defeated by the Parthians to the east (cf. Tacitus, Annals 15.13-17), and there were shortages of food, such as those recorded in The Acts of the Apostles and in Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars (“Domitian” 7). In addition, there were earthquakes, such as those in Asia Minor itself in A.D. 60 (cf. Tacitus, Annals 14.27), volcanic eruptions, such as Vesuvius (cf. Pliny, Letters 6.16), civil war in Rome following the suicide of Nero in 68, and the war in Judea that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. All these events, John is telling us, were the subjects of the Sacred Scroll opened by the Lamb. That is to say, they are the fulfillment of prophecies in the final times.
Monday, November 28
Revelation 6:9-17: Besides the evils that afflict the people of the world, John knows of a special harm visited on Christians. After his description of the four horsemen, therefore, he speaks of the bloody persecution endured by believers (verses 9-11). Their blood (in the biblical idiom, their “souls,” because the soul is in the blood, according to Leviticus 17:11) has run down the side of the altar of sacrifice and pools at its base. They are martyrs, which is the Greek word for “witnesses.” Like the blood of Abel, their blood cries out to God, “How long?” (Compare Isaiah 6:11; Zechariah 1:12; Habakkuk 1:2; Daniel 8:13; 12:6)
The vengeance for which they pray is not a personal vindictiveness (for Christians always forgive their enemies and wish them no harm; this is an absolute rule, allowing no exceptions), but a petition for the fulfilling of God’s righteous historical purposes.
They must wait, however, until the full measure of the martyrs is complete (compare Hebrews 11:40). Their white robes signify their participation in eternal life (cf. 7:13-17). The opening of the sixth seal declares those things that precede the end of the world and the final vindication of the saints.
First come the perturbations of the earth (verses 12-14), and then the effects on human beings (verses 15-17). The sequence of these afflictions follows the order of creation in Genesis 1; namely, (1) earth, (2) sun, (3) moon, (4) stars, (5) firmament, (6) land, (7) man. What John sees, then, is a kind of de-creation, a reversal of what God established, the collapse of the universe.
In the opening of the fifth, sixth, and seventh seals, we also detect the same four colors that accompanied the first four seals: thus, fifth seal, white robes; sixth seal, red moon and black sun; seventh seal, green grass.
There is a great irony in the image of the “wrath of the Lamb.” Indeed, a wrathful lamb is unimaginable except to the enemies of God. The wrath, of course, does not come from the Lamb who shed His blood for the world’s redemption and who hates nothing that He has made. The wrath comes, rather, from within the enemies themselves, who insist on seeing God as an enemy.
Tuesday, November 29
Revelation 17:1-17: The two visions in this chapter still pertain to the sixth seal. The opening of the first six seals has unleashed enormous sufferings on the earth, so prior to the opening of the seventh the vision of St. John faces the question, “Who shall stand? Who will be able to endure? Who will persevere to the end?” And John’s answer is, “the servants of God.”
Prior to the releasing of the final tribulation, therefore, the servants of God must be sealed. Their number, 144,000, is a massive combination of the perfect number twelve (3 x 4, or the divine number 3 multiplied by the human number 4; that is, the multiplied combination of God and man) multiplied to a gross and then multiplied again by a thousand. In other words, a very big number that no man can count to (verse 9; cf. Genesis 15:5).
The final preservation of God’s elect was foreshadowed in their deliverance at the time of the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Because of a prophecy that told them all to flee (cf. Eusebius, Church History 3.5.3), no Christians were in Jerusalem when the city came under siege. Although up to a million Jews perished during the horrors of that siege and downfall, not one of them was a Christian. The physical deliverance of those Christians thus became the symbol of the spiritual deliverance of God’s elect in the final tribulation.
This sealing of God’s servants is done with the mark of the “tau,” the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet (Ezekiel 9:1-7), which at that time was still cruciform. God’s servants are sealed with the Sign of the Cross on their foreheads, which in fact was a very early part of the rite of baptism (cf. Tertullian, Against Marcion 3.22).
This sealing with the mark of the true Paschal Lamb fulfilled the promise contained in that earlier marking of Israel with the sacrificial blood of its type (Exodus 12:21-23). Both Ezekiel and Exodus are important for the understanding of this seal. Ezekiel’s reference was to the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., of which everyone was aware who saw the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The passage in Exodus 12 had to do with the last of the ten plagues visited upon Egypt, the slaying of the firstborn sons. This sealing in Revelation, then, involves a new Exodus, in which God’s people will be delivered, not left to share in the sin of the earthly Jerusalem.
Beginning with an “amen” by which they respond to the acclamation of the saints in verse 10, the angels now join their voices in the praise of God (verse 11).
In John’s perspective, this vision is simultaneously past, present, and future. Inasmuch as the vision already contains fulfillment, its verbal tense is past. The “great tribulation,” moreover, has already started (for it is simultaneous with the “last times”), and therefore the present verbal tense, the ongoing perspective, is likewise proper. But inasmuch as there are still events to come (quickly!), John’s view is also directed toward the future.
Wednesday, November 30
John 6:1-14: The Evangelist tells us, “Jesus lifted up His eyes, and seeing a great multitude coming toward Him, He said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?” But this He said to test him, for He Himself knew what He would do” (John 6:5–6). What, we are justified in asking, was accomplished by this question to Philip, since Jesus already “knew what He would do”? His question here served the purpose of evoking the assistance of the apostles in what was about to take place.
Jesus did not ask that question for Philip’s sake, I believe, but for Andrew’s. They were a pair. He knew that wherever you saw Philip, Andrew must be nearby. The question was apparently meant to be overheard by Andrew, who promptly replied, “There is a lad here who has five barley buns and a couple of dried fish” (John 6:9). Now they could get started!
Thus, by putting to Philip a question to which he already knew the answer, Jesus transformed these apostles from mere spectators to active participants in the experience of the multiplication of the loaves. It is they who will seat the people for the meal (John 6:10).
It is they who will distribute the bread and fish (6:11). In this scene, then, Jesus’ question both commences the event and provides for its participatory structure.
The scene also says much about Andrew himself. Of the six accounts of the multiplication of the loaves in the Gospels, only John tells us of the special role of Andrew: “One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, ‘There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two small fish, but what are they among so many?’” (John 6:8–9).
Now, the attentive reader of Holy Scripture should be asking a question
of the text at this point, namely, just how did Andrew know that there was a little boy present who was carrying those articles of food? It is unlikely, after all, that a small boy would be holding all seven items in his hands at the same time. The five barley loaves and two little fish must have been carried in a sack of some sort. The lad was part of a large multitude that had been with Jesus for some days (Matthew 15:32), and his mother had packed him several meals in a lunch bag.
By now, he has already eaten most of that food—the fresh fruit and sweets are gone, for instance. All the lad has left in that sack are five barley loaves, possibly a tad beyond their prime, and a couple of salted fish.
So how did Andrew know what was contained in that little boy’s bag? Surely the answer is obvious. He noticed the child standing near him, maybe alone, perhaps a bit distracted, and he simply asked in a cordial, engaging way, “Say there, son, what all did your mama pack for you in that sack?”
Thursday, December 1
Revelation 8:1-13: The number four is the traditional human number; thus, man divides his world into four directions: a front, a back, and two sides. He speaks of “four winds,” the “four corners of the earth,” and so forth. The divine number is three, because it is perceived to be the most stable. The triangle is the only stable geometric figure, the angles of which cannot be altered without changing the length of its sides. Similarly, the tripod is the only completely stable object to stand on a plane; anyone sitting on a wobbly chair knows that chairs seem to prefer three legs to four!
Any combination of three and four, therefore, represents the union of God and man, which is perfection. Thus, the multiplication of three and four yields the sacred number twelve, which appears in many contexts in Holy Scripture, including the Book of Revelation. If three and four are added, the resultant sacred number is seven. The symbolic use of both numbers, twelve and seven (one being the number of months in the year, and the other being the number of days in the week), is found ubiquitously in Holy Scripture.
The number seven, in fact, provides an important structural element throughout much of Revelation. Thus, there were seven letters to seven churches (Chapters 2 and 3), followed by a scroll with seven seals that needed to be opened. The opening of that seventh seal, in turn, will introduce the seven trumpets, which will be followed by seven bowls of plagues.
In the present text, the immediate response to the opening of the seventh seal is silence in heaven for thirty minutes (verse 1), while the angels with the seven trumpets prepare themselves (verses 2,6), and the throne room is ritually incensed (verse 3). The silence that accompanies the incensing provides a time for prayers to be offered, the ascending of which is symbolized in the rising incense smoke (cf. Luke 1:9-10; Exodus 30:1-9; Talmud, “Tamid” 3.1). In the temple ritual of Israel, it is likely that thirty minutes was required for the priest to make the rounds of the temple with his censer, though it sometimes took longer (cf. Luke 1:21).
We should also observe here that the altar of incense is the only altar in heaven (6:9; 9:13; 14:18; 16:7); there is no altar of holocausts in heaven because the purpose of that altar in Israel’s ancient temple was fulfilled by the Cross, where the definitive Sacrifice was offered for the sins of the world.
The trumpets, moreover, will be sounded by the seven “angels of the Presence” (cf. Tobit 12:15; Luke 1:19). There were seven trumpets sounded in the procession around the walls of Jericho in Joshua 6. It is useful to bear in mind that the Ark of the Covenant was borne at the end of that procession, after the seven trumpets. Similarly, at the end of the sounding of the seventh trumpet in the Book of Revelation, the Ark of the Covenant will once again appear (cf. 11:15,19).
Friday, December 2
Luke 22:47-53: Here they were, a band of armed men already on the scene. Simon leapt up, holding a sword that he had brought to make good his promise of loyalty in the face of danger. He recognized Judas Iscariot, who came forward to Jesus and, in the customary fashion, kissed the hand of his rabbi. Just what was this all about?
The response of Jesus explained it all: “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” (Luke 22:48). Simon waited no further.
Malchus saw the sword coming from the right, aimed at his throat, and he ducked quickly to his left to avoid decapitation. Even so, his right ear was partly severed by the tip of the blade (Luke 22:50). Then Jesus stepped up, grabbed his dangling ear, and replaced it entirely to his head, as though nothing had ever happened. The rest of that night was a blur, and the whole next day, as he walked around in a daze, going to Pilate’s and elsewhere, but ever reaching up from time to time to feel his ear and trying to make sense of it.
Revelation 9:1-12: The first four trumpets produced plagues that resembled the seventh, first, and ninth plagues of Egypt (Exodus 9:22-26; 7:20-21; 10:21). These plagues, prompted by the trumpets, affect only the physical and astrophysical world, not human beings—at least not directly. The final three, described by the heavenly eagle as “woes,” afflict mankind directly (8:13).
The image of a fallen star already appeared in 8:10-11. Now another star falls in response to the fifth trumpet (verse 1; cf. Isaiah 14:12-20). This star opens the bottomless pit, from which arises a hellish smoke (verse 2; cf. 8:12) that contrasts with the incense smoke of prayer. The abyss represents existence without the worship of God — the theological term for which is “hell.” As John watches, a massive swarm of locusts takes form within that hellish cloud (verse 3), reminiscent of Egypt’s eighth plague (Exodus 10:12-15). Unlike those former locusts, however, these locusts attack men themselves, not plant life (verse 4). Their activity is limited to five months, which is roughly the normal life span of locusts.
Indeed, this may be the only feature in which these particular locusts in Revelation resemble any other locusts in the world. These are not your usual, run-of-the-mill locusts (verses 8-10). They are satanic locusts, denizens of the abyss, who afflict men with despair. They deceptively have human faces (verse 7), but they represent a worse than human evil. Their king is called “Abaddon,” which is the Old Testament’s personification of the underworld, or grave. It literally means “destruction” (cf. Job 26:6; 31:12). John translates this name into Greek as Apollyon, meaning “destroyer” (verse 11).
It is possible that John intends here a word play on the name “’Apollo,” which name, according to Aeschylus (Agamemnon 1082), comes from the verb apoluein, “to destroy.” We may bear in mind, in this respect, that the Emperor Domitian, not a man easily outdone, it must be said, with respect to a high self-opinion, proclaimed himself a manifestation of Apollo. (There is simply no evil as evil as official, government-sanctioned evil.) The torture inflicted by these followers of Abaddon is spiritual, not physical, and the Christians, sealed with the sign of the Living God, are exempt from it.