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.

Saturday, December 17

Revelation 18:1-20: 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).

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 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 to describe her plight.

Sunday, December 18

Matthew 24:32-44: Following the previous prophecies is this 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.
What were “all these things”? Surely they included the details of the Lord’s immediate prophecy: the abomination of desolation, the great tribulation, the rise of false messiahs and false prophets, the planetary disruptions, all preceding the coming of the Son of Man to judge the world.
In what sense, then, did “this generation” see “all these things”? After all, “this generation” had largely died off by the time that Matthew wrote. Yet Matthew includes this saying of Jesus.
In fact this was a puzzle for the first Christians no less than for us. Indeed, it was probably a greater puzzle for them than for us. We know that many Christians apparently presumed that they would be alive to witness the return of Christ. Notice how Paul described the Lord’s return in his first epistle: “For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep” (First Thessalonians 4:15 emphasis added). It is “we,” says Paul, who will witness the event. He goes on to speak with considerable assurance on the matter: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord” (4:16-17, emphasis added).
As Paul’s epistles are studied chronologically, it is interesting to observe how the Apostle becomes less certain on this point. By the time of Second Timothy it is gone all together, as Paul prepares for his imminent death.
When Christ did not return within the limits of “this generation,” as the earliest Christians seemed to have understood this expression, they were obliged to re-think the question of the imminence of that return. Such a rethinking continues to the present day, it may be said; the Church continues to ponder the signs of history under the guidance of the Lord’s prophetic word.
The great temptation, when a prophecy has not been completely understood, is to become skeptical of the prophecy itself. This also happened during New Testament times, and the phenomenon became yet another sign of the final times. Thus, St. Peter exhorted believers to “be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior, knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as from the beginning of creation’” (2 Peter 3:2-4).
In fact, the indications of imminence that we find in verses 32-34 of this chapter of Matthew are but one side of a balance. The other side is verse 36: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but the Father only.” These are the two sides of the balance: imminent signs and utter secrecy. What Christ gives us by way of prophecy must not deteriorate into some sort of historical tabulation. Eschatological prophecy must not become a divine bus schedule, as it were, by which we can see if things are going as planned.
Jesus is emphatic on this point: God has not shared His plan. The explicit and detailed nature of the Lord’s prophecy, and even the imminence of its fulfillment, do not remove the secret nature of its content. Its fulfillment is still concealed in the mind of God; it has not been shared with the angels, nor has it been disclosed even to Jesus. It remains the unrevealed mystery.
What Jesus does know, however, He shares with us, and this is the practical point to which we cling: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away” (verse 35). In this verse we have the pivot joining the two sides of the balance. His words are more reliable than heaven and earth.
In saying this, Jesus affirms about history what He had earlier said about the Torah: “For Amen, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (5:18).
The sense of immediacy in verses 33-34 will be further qualified in what remains of this exhortation to vigilance. Three times in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus will speak of a “delay” with respect to His return (verse 48; 25:5,19). These sayings, which are proper to Matthew, surely reflect the passage of one generation of Christians to the next.

Monday, December 19

Revelation 19:11-21: 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 ruling 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.

Tuesday, December 20

Revelation 20:1-15: The most controversial part of this passage is the “thousand years,” to which several references are made. 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 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” 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.

Wednesday, 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.”

Psalms 72 (Greek & Latin 71): This psalm is often referred to as a “messianic” psalm, in the sense that it is concerned with God’s “anointed” king. Considering only the simplest reading of this psalm, it is difficult to escape the impression that it was composed for use at ceremonies of royal coronation, the ritual point of dynastic transition: “Grant Your justice to the king, O God, and Your righteousness to the king’s son.” The title added to this psalm does, in fact, ascribe it to Solomon, the first successor to the Davidic throne.

Two narrative sections of Holy Scripture readily come to mind in connection with the themes of Psalm 71. The first text is 2 Samuel 7, containing Nathan’s great prophecy about the royal house of David, which now became the beneficiary of a special covenant to guarantee that his descendants would reign forever over his kingdom. A number of lines of our psalm, especially those pertaining to the permanence and extension of David’s royal house, reflect that historical text.

The second pertinent passage is 1 Kings 3, which describes Solomon’s prayer for the “wise heart” that would enable him to govern God’s people justly. Repeatedly throughout this psalm mention is made of the justice and wisdom that would characterize God’s true anointed one.

As Christians, of course, we believe that the inner substance of all these figures finds its fulfillment in Jesus the Lord, the goal of biblical history and the defining object of all biblical prophecy.

The Archangel Gabriel announced the fulfillment of these ancient prophecies when he told the Mother of the Messiah that “the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32, 33). Yet other angels announced to the shepherds that “there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ [Messiah] the Lord” (2:11). He was to be at once David’s offspring and His Lord (cf. Mark 12:35–37).

Thursday, December 22

Revelation 21:9-27: All of history is symbolized in two women, who are two cities. We have already considered the scarlet woman who is Babylon/ Rome. The other woman is the Bride, the New Jerusalem, whose proper place is heaven, but who also flees to the desert, where she does battle with Satan (Chapter 12). Now that battle is over, however, and she appears here in her glory. That other city was seated, as we saw, on seven hills, but this New Jerusalem also sits on a very high mountain, which everyone understood to be symbolized in Mount Zion (cf. Ezekiel 40:1-2). John’s vision of the gates on the city is reminiscent of Ezekiel 48.

John’s vision here, especially verses 19-21, is also related to Ezekiel 28:12-15, where we find joined the themes of the mountain and the precious stones, for this city is also the Garden of Eden, where those stones first grew (cf. Genesis 2:10-12).

The symbolic number here is twelve, which we already considered in Chapter 12, where it was the number of the stars around the head of the heavenly woman. The identification of twelve stars with twelve stones is obvious in our own custom of birthstones to represent zodiacal signs. The symbol is not only astrological, however, but also historical, because it is the number of the patriarchs and apostles. Here, in fact, the twelve gates bear the names of the twelve tribes, who are the seed of the twelve patriarchs, while the twelve foundation stones of the city are identified as the twelve apostles.

We recall that one hundred and forty-four thousand—the number of the righteous—partly involves squaring of the number twelve. In the present chapter John stresses that the plane geometry of the holy city is square, as in Ezekiel 45 and 48. John goes beyond Ezekiel, however, in viewing the New Jerusalem as a cube, as in the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:20).

Psalm 80 (Greek & Latin 79): In this psalm there are two chief metaphors for the Church: the flock and the vine. First, the Church is a flock. Thus this psalm commences: “Attend, O Shepherd of Israel, You who herd Joseph like sheep.” Holy Church is called “the flock of God,” awaiting the day “when the chief Shepherd appears” (1 Pet. 5:2, 4), who is elsewhere called “that great Shepherd of the sheep” (Heb. 13:20). Our psalm is the flock’s prayer for the appearing of that Shepherd. Left to their own devices, sheep have been known to get themselves terribly lost, and, as our psalm suggests, they are vulnerable to many predators.

Second, the Church is a vine: “You transplanted a vine out of Egypt; You drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the way before it; You planted its roots, and it filled the earth.” It is a catholic plant, this vine, for its branches spread everywhere: “Its shadow covered the mountains, and its boughs the cedars of God. It stretched out its limbs to the sea, and its tendrils to the rivers.”

The vine, however, is at least as vulnerable as a flock of sheep: “A boar from the forest has ravaged it, and a wild beast has eaten it up.” Such things do happen to the Church, of course, whether from imprisonment at Philippi, beatings and dissensions at Corinth, heresy in Galatia, the synagogue of Satan at Smyrna, or the deeds of the Nicolaitans at Ephesus and Pergamum. It is against such beastly ravages that the Church prays this psalm.

Friday, December 23

Hebrews 1:1-14: The motif in this chapter is the solidarity of Jesus with humanity, and more specifically with His Church. The author even puts on the lips of our Lord the works of the Psalmist, “I will announce your name to My brethren; in the midst of the Church I will sing to You” (verse 12). This is one of the places in Holy Scripture where Jesus is explicitly pictured as a “brother” (cf. Matthew 25:40; 28:10; Mark 3:34-35; John 20:17; Romans 8:29).

Elaborating this idea of the Lord’s solidarity with us, Hebrews speaks of Jesus as the “sanctifier” (hagiazon) and Christians as the “sanctified” (hagiazomenoi), both sharing the same stock, both joined in a common humanity (verse 11).

Jesus shares the “flesh and blood” of other human beings (verse 14). This expression, meaning “humanity,” is used twice in this sense in Sirach and three times elsewhere in the New Testament.

Psalms 96 (Greek & Latin 95): This psalm was among the psalms chosen to be sung when the Ark of the Covenant was placed in the new tabernacle that David had constructed for it in Jerusalem (cf. 1 Chr. 16:23–33). This piece of information is valuable because it sets Psalm 95 in at least one of its interpretive contexts in biblical history: God’s enthronement as King in the worship of His holy people. Inasmuch as the Lord’s symbolic enthronement “between the cherubim” in the Holy of Holies was one of the more important Old Testament institutions preparatory for His definitive presence in the human race by reason of the Incarnation, the deeper meaning of this psalm is likewise to be sought in its relationship to God’s Word that “became flesh and dwelt [or tabernacled] among us” (John 1:14).

This psalm, then, and all other Old Testament references to God as King are prophecies fulfilled in the Kingship of Jesus the Lord, who declared to the local representative of the Roman Empire, “You say rightly that I am a king” (John 18:37).

Indeed, the universal Kingship of Christ is the root and warrant of the entire mission of the Church to the nations: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matt. 28:18, 19). The first component justifies the second. These two sentences are related as premise and inference. Because He has received all authority in heaven and on earth, we therefore go forth to make disciples of all nations. The proclamation elicits the universal evangelical mandate.

What is true of all inspired Scriptures seems especially applicable to thispsalm and its call to the nations to enter the Church in praise of the risen Christ: “Confession and beauty are before Him; holiness and splendor stand in His sanctuary. Bring to the Lord, you families of nations, bring to the Lord glory and honor; bring to the Lord the glory due His name. Bring sacrifices, and process into His courts. Worship the Lord in His holy court.”