Friday, December 9

Revelation 13:1-10: Up till now we have seen two beasts, one of them from the underworld (Chapter 11) and the other from the heavens (Chapters 12). Two more beasts will appear in the present chapter, one of them from the sea (verse 1), who also has seven heads and ten horns (cf. 12:3), and one from the land (verse 11).

The present reading is concerned solely with the first of these two latter beasts. Like the beast in Daniel 7, he is a composite of several menacing things (verse 2). He derives his “authority” from the Dragon (verses 2,4) whom we considered in Chapter 12. That is to say, this beast shares in the power of Satan.

With respect to his ten horns, two remarks are in order: First, in Daniel 7, the obvious literary background here, the ten horns seem to refer to the ten Seleucid successors of Alexander the Great. Second, here in Revelation 13 they seem to refer to Roman emperors. If we leave out Otho, who reigned over the Roman Empire for only three months, there were, in fact, exactly ten Roman emperors up to Domitian, who was responsible for the persecution of A.D. 95: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. Almost all of these men were recognized as divine, some of them even before their deaths. Words such as theos and divus appear on their coins. This figure, therefore, symbolizes the idolatrous pretensions of the Roman Empire, which John ascribes to Satan. Those pretensions claim an unquestioned and absolute allegiance over the human spirit.

This beast of the Roman Empire combines the worst features of all the earlier empires: Daniel’s winged lion of Babylon, the bear of the Medes, the leopard of the Persians, and the ten-headed hydra of the Greeks. One may note that John lists these components in the reverse order of Daniel.

Far more than ourselves, one fears, the early Christians were aware of the power of evil in the world. They spoke of it frequently in personified forms that are difficult to interpret literally. And the Christians described their relationship to this evil as one of warfare. The terms of the conflict described here in Revelation 13 may be compared to the description in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12. In each case there is a widespread deception of people, their enslavement and destruction by means of lies. In both these texts a pronounced contrast is drawn between the worldlings, who are deceived and will perish, and the faithful, who will be saved by reason of their fidelity to Jesus.

Sunday, December 11

Philippians 4:4-9: This section of Philippians, for more than a thousand years, been the preferred reading for the Third Sunday of Advent because speaks of the nearness of the coming (adventus in Latin) of the Lord. Paul exhorts the Philippians—repeatedly—to rejoice. Indeed, these few verses contain the highest concentration of joyful exhortation in all of Sacred Scripture. The plural Latin imperative for “rejoice” is Gaudete, so this Sunday is traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday. In many congregations this note of rejoicing prompted the custom of replacing the season’s purple with a softer rose color in the vestments and the adornment of the sanctuary on this day.

Psalms 103 (Greek and Latin 102): One observes in this psalm great effort to take into one’s own heart God’s manifold acts of mercy all through the history of the Bible. This is the God “who made His ways known to Moses, His deeds to the children of Israel.” This is the historical God of the covenant and the commandments: “The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on them that fear Him, and His righteousness unto children’s children; to such as keep His covenant, and to those who remember His commandments to do them.” It is to this interiorization of the commandments, this “remembrance” of the everlasting covenant, that this psalm summons the soul: “Forget not all His benefits; He forgives all your iniquities.”

This inner knowledge of the forgiving mercy of God is the substance of the covenant that we have with God in Christ: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts. . . For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more” (Jer. 31:33, 34; Heb. 8:10, 12). This knowledge of the true God is inseparable from the forgiveness of our sins: “ . . . To give knowledge of salvation to His people / By the remission of their sins” (Luke 1:77).

In Psalm 103, then, the soul is called to the contemplation of God’s infinite, forgiving mercy: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. . . He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.” Indeed not, for “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
This is a psalm appropriately to be prayed with the image of the crucified Christ in our minds, for only in the crucified Jesus are the words of this psalm truly fulfilled. The four dimensions of the Cross, its length and breadth, its height and depth, are the dimensions of God’s mercy: “For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward them that fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” This hesed or mercy of God is not a hazy benevolence. It has a definite history that climaxes in specific acts of salvation: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). And again, “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us” (1 John 3:16).

Monday, December 12

Revelation 14:1-13: 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.

Tuesday, December 13

Luke 24:36-53: This final section of the Gospel of Luke contains two scenes: In the first, Jesus gives (Luke’s version of) the Great Commission to evangelize the world. Especially to be noted in this commission is the Lukan theme of biblical understanding; Jesus “opens” the minds of the Apostles in order for them to find in the Hebrew Scriptures an “open” book. That is to say, the Gospel itself cannot be separated from the Old Testament. The whole Tanach—the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings—is integral to the Christian message. We read this collection of books as Christian Scriptures. In this respect, Jesus turns the minds of His Apostles to the past.

Second, in the scene of the Lord’s Ascension, the minds of those Apostles are turned to the future, to the day of His return and the vindication of the Christian hope.

Revelation 14:14-20: On the image of harvest as judgment, see Joel 4:13-14 (3:9-14). 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.

Unlike ourselves, men in antiquity actually experienced harvesting with a sickle and treading grapes in a vat, both actions characterized by a distinct measure of violence. Even these relatively benign images of harvest season, therefore, strongly suggest that the “end of time” will be more than slightly daunting. It should not surprise us that the harvesting with a sickle and the trampling of a wine vat are associated with the feeling of God’s definitive wrath.

The association of anger with the treading of the grapes was hardly new (cf. Isaiah 63:1-6), and it will appear again (Revelation 19:13-15). The grape harvest arrives in September, as the seasonal period of growth comes to an end. It is natural to think of death at this time of the year.

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.

The rising pool of blood becomes a kind of Red Sea. Indeed, the following chapter will be full of imagery from the Book of Exodus: plagues, the cloud of the divine presence, the tent of testimony, Moses, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the destruction of the pursuers.

Wednesday, December 14

Mark 13:1-2: Here begins Mark’s account of the Jesus discourse on “the final things.” Both Mark and Luke (21:5-6) start this discourse as a sort of response to Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple, a prophecy fulfilled about four decades later when the Roman general, Titus, conquered Jerusalem: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”

The context of this prophecy displays a further irony: Both evangelists place this prophecy in the context of the story of the poor widow, who gives contributes her last resources for the upkeep of that Temple (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4). This great Temple, so admired by the disciples (Mark 13:1; Luke 21:5), certainly did not need the meager resources of this poor widow, nor was it last past another generation.

Thus, the widow’s two mites—all she had in this world—were contributed to a building that was soon to be destroyed. From a poorly human perspective her gift was simply “wasted,” like the ointment, soon to be poured out on the head of Jesus (Mark14:3-4).

This sense of “waste,” which the present reading associates with the Temple itself, is the setting for Jesus’ words about the final days of human history, when the Almighty will truly tear down what He built and pluck up what He planted. Will history itself appear to be only a “waste” of time? “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Psalms 53 (Greek & Latin 52): In Romans 3:10–12 the Apostle Paul quotes this text (probably by heart, because he spontaneously adds lines from several other psalms in the following verses), with special emphasis on the universal need for salvation. His point is that, strictly speaking, there are really no just men in this world—men who are just in the sense that they are able, by the righteousness of their own works, to attain to the presence of God and stand innocent before him. Thus understood, who is a just man in this world? St. Paul’s answer is emphatic—nobody, absolutely nobody, and he quotes our psalm text to prove the point: “There is none righteous, no, not one; / There is none who understands; / There is none who seeks after God. / They have all turned aside; / They have together become unprofitable; / There is none who does good, no, not one.”

The Apostle cites this psalm to address the major theme of Romans—that only God can justify man, and that God does so only in Jesus the Lord. Men are helpless, if left to their own capacities and accomplishments, and they are foolish to imagine otherwise. We human beings are so thoroughly infected by the results of sin that, unless God intervenes in our misery and takes a hand in our destiny, our inevitable lot is despair. None of us can measure up, no, not one. Whether Jew or Gentile, “there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:22, 23).

Thursday, December 15

Revelation 16:1-21: The seven bowls of plagues evoke imagery from the Mosaic plagues visited on Egypt. Thus, 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).

In addition, these “bowls” find correspondences with the “trumpets” that were sounded earlier. 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 the novelist 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 there in 609. In John’s mind, Armageddon symbolizes disaster, catastrophe, and violence.

Psalms 59 (Greek & Latin 58): Someone has commented on the importance of knowing “the whole Bible, from Genesis to maps.” The latter, of course, is a reference to the cartographic pages at the end of most modern editions of Holy Scripture. These are important, and those who never consult them will suffer disadvantage from the neglect. We Bible-believers do not worship some general, all-purpose divinity. On the contrary, we worship a very specific God who has revealed Himself in certain historical events. Now historical events happen within time and space, and this is the reason for binding maps, and sometimes historical charts, within the Bible itself, so that the reader may keep himself informed about the “places” spoken of in the sacred text. Indeed, some knowledge of geography must be presumed for a proper understanding of many parts of the Bible. Our psalm is certainly one of these.

When God arises and begins to do battle for His people, He provides a list of all the projected battlefields: Shechem, Succoth, Gilead, Manasseh, Ephraim, Judah, Moab, Edom, Philistia. These are real places, and one is much more likely to pray the psalm with understanding if he knows where these places are.

Friday, December 16

Revelation 17:1-18: 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 also 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.

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). The seven head 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.