Friday, December 14

Revelation 15:1-8: This shortest chapter in the Book of Revelation introduces the imagery of the seven bowls of plagues, which will be poured out in the next chapter.

The ocean of blood, with which the previous chapter ended, has now become a kind of Red Sea (verses 1-3), which also inserts the theme of the Exodus. This theme itself is appropriate to the outpouring of the plagues. Other components of the Exodus theme likewise appear in this chapter: the Song of Moses, the cloud of the divine presence, the tent of testimony, and so forth.

The “sea of glass”?(verse 2) we have already considered in Chapter 4. Beside this sea stand God’s people who have passed over it in the definitive Exodus. They are musicians—harpists to be exact—identical with the one hundred and forty-four thousand whom we saw with the Lamb in the previous chapter; there was harp music in that scene too.

These elect have “overcome,” the very thing to which John had called the seven churches in Chapters 2-3. They are now beyond the power of the beast to harm them.

John sees in heaven the tabernacle of testimony from the Book of Exodus, the traveling tent of the divine presence that Moses and the Israelites carried through the desert. This tent, however, is “heavenly,” which means that it is the original model, the very pattern that Moses copied (Exodus 25:9,40; ?Acts 7:44; Hebrews 8:5).

Since the tent is a place of worship, we are not surprised that John sees seven angels coming out of it, clothed in priestly vestments (verse 6; cf. Exodus 28:4; 39:29), very much as Jesus was clothed in the inaugural vision (Revelation 1:12-13).

The tent itself is full of the cloud of the divine presence, the very cloud that led the Israelites through the desert of old. When that tent was dedicated in the desert, the divine cloud took up residence within it? (Exodus 40:34-38). That cloud later took residence in Solomon’s temple (I Kings 8:1-12), where Isaiah beheld it (6:1-4). In prophetic vision Ezekiel ?saw that cloud return to the second temple built in 520-516 (Ezekiel 44:4).

The hymn in verses 3-4 should be compared with Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple, as recorded in 2 Chronicles 6:14-42. Both prayers, to begin with, are offered “at the sea” (verse 2; 2 Chronicles 6:12-13). ?Both prayers thank God for His mighty works, invoke His righteous judgments, and request the conversion of all the nations. Finally, in response to each prayer, fire comes down from heaven (verses 5-8; 2 Chronicles 7:1-2).

Saturday, December 15

Luke 23:6-12: Luke tells how the animosity of Herod Antipas toward Jesus (cf. Luke 13:31) was later directed against Jesus’ disciples (cf. Acts 12:1, 11). Indeed, Luke regarded the collusion of Antipas and Pontius Pilate, which was sealed at Jesus’ trial (Luke 23:12), as the fulfillment of David’s prophecy (Psalm 2:1–2) of the gathering of the world’s leaders “against the Lord and against His Christ” (Acts 4:25–27).

It is significant that Luke, when he tells us of Jesus’ appearance before Antipas on Good Friday, does more than state the bare event. He goes into some detail about how “ Herod, with his men of war, treated Him with contempt and
mocked Him, arrayed Him in a gorgeous robe, and sent Him back to Pilate” (Luke 23:11).

This description implies that Luke had access to an eyewitness account of the event, an event at which, as far as we know, no Christian disciple was present. The historian rightly inquires how Luke knew all this.

Moreover, in addition to these external items of the narrative, Luke even addresses the motive and internal dispositions of Antipas, saying that he was exceedingly glad; for he had desired for a long time to see Him, because he had heard many things about Him, and he hoped to see some miracle done by Him. (23:8)

Once again, the historian properly wonders how Luke was privy to these sentiments. What was his source for this material, a source apparently not available to the other evangelists?

Luke himself provides a hint toward answering this historical question when he mentions a certain Chuza, described as a “steward” of Herod Antipas. The underlying Greek noun here is epitropos, the same word that refers to the vineyard foreman in Matthew 20:8, but in the Lukan context it more likely points to a high political office, such as a chief of staff.

It does not tax belief to imagine that such a person would be present at Jesus’ arraignment before Herod Antipas. Indeed, this would be exactly the sort of person we would expect to be present on that occasion, when Herod was in Jerusalem to observe the Passover. Furthermore, Chuza is also the sort of person we would expect to be familiar with Herod’s own thoughts, sentiments, and motives with respect to Jesus.

And how did Chuza’s information come to Luke? Most certainly through Chuza’s wife, Joanna, whom Luke includes among the Galilean women who traveled with Jesus and the apostles, providing for him “from their substance” (Luke 8:3). Joanna, whom Luke is the only evangelist to mention by name, was surely his special channel of information that only he, among the evangelists, seems to have had. Married to a well-placed political figure in the Galilean court, Joanna was apparently a lady of some means, who used her resources to provide for the traveling ministry of Jesus and the apostles. Acting in this capacity, she must have been very well known among the earliest Christians. Only Luke, however, speaks of her by name, a fact that seems to indicate that he had interviewed her in the composition of his Gospel.

Sunday, December 16

Psalms 63 (Greek & Latin 62): Communion with God is the goal of all prayer, no matter how elementary, pedestrian, or dry. This psalm, in fact, speaks of the soul’s sense of dryness, even as it aspires to divine union: “My soul thirsts for You, and in so many ways my flesh as well, in a desert land, trackless and without water; for Your mercy is better than life.”

There is a communion with God expressed chiefly in rest and silence; such was the tone of certain other psalms. In the present psalm, however, the emphasis lies rather on the rapture of blessing and praise: “My lips shall praise You; thus will I bless You. I will lift up my hands unto Your name. . . . My mouth will praise You with joyful lips.”

Most men seem not to know it, but a longing for union with God is native to the human soul. Using images of both adherence and pursuit, our present psalm expresses this quality of the soul in a verse that largely defies condign translation into standard English—ekollethe he psyche mou opiso sou—adhaesit anima mea post te. This would literally read: “My soul stuck fast after You.”

Revelation 16:12-21: 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 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.

The hailstones that accompany the seventh bowl (verse 21) are parallel to Moses’ seventh plague against Egypt (Exodus 9:13-26).

Monday, December 17

Revelation 17:1-6: John’s vision of the woman on the scarlet beast is better understood if one bears in mind certain features of his cultural and religious memory:

First, Israel’s prophetic tradition had fought against ritual prostitution, one of the standard religious practices of Canaanite religion, which Israel’s prophets for centuries struggled to replace. This tradition frequently spoke of idolatry under the metaphor of fornication, a metaphor further suggested by the prophetic perception of Israel as bound to God by a spiritual marriage. This perception is well documented in two prophets of the eighth century, Hosea and Isaiah.

Second, a century earlier Elijah had opposed the immoral cult of Baal, which was sponsored by the Phoenician princess Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab. For this reason, Jezebel came to personify, in Israel’s memory, the witch, the wicked woman of loose morals. As in the instance of Naboth’s vineyard, as well as the death of many prophets, she was also remembered as a woman responsible for the shedding of innocent blood; Elijah complained that she had put a price on his own head. All of this has been on John’s mind; he has already described a certain woman at Thyatira as a Jezebel (2:20-23). The memory of Jezebel is certainly part of the picture of John’s image of the woman on the scarlet beast.

Third, Israel’s wisdom tradition, especially as found in the Book of Proverbs, spoke of Wisdom as a man’s true bride, in intimacy with whom he was to spend his whole life. Opposed to this bridal wisdom was the “loose woman,” Dame Folly, personified in the prostitute. This opposition undoubtedly arose from the simple observation that a good marriage to the right woman teaches a man, if he is teachable, how to conduct his life well and wisely, whereas that same man is brought to ruin if he consorts with a meretricious woman. The whore, then, was as bad a figure in Israel’s wisdom literature as she is in the prophetic literature.

Fourth, John seems also influenced by certain infamous and profligate women in the more recent history with which he was familiar. In the previous century, for example, there had been the famous femme fatale, Cleopatra, while in his own lifetime John knew of Herodias, whose success in murdering John the Baptist surpassed even Jezebel’s efforts against Elijah.

Fifth, 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.

Tuesday, December 18

Luke 23:44-56: Joseph’s actions are contrasted with those of the other members of the Sanhedrin. Whereas they blindfolded, mocked, and abused Jesus, Joseph treats even his dead body with dignity and respect. Although executed criminals were often buried in a common grave, or even left as carrion for wild beasts, Joseph carefully places the body of Jesus in a special tomb, a place befitting the dignity of the coming Resurrection.

Revelation 17:7-18: We have already seen why the number seven is the symbol of perfection. Now, in the assertion that the seven heads of the beast are “seven hills” (verse 9), the seven is inverted to serve as a parody of perfection and completion; that is, perfect and complete evil. The seven hills are, of course, the seven hills on which sits the city of Rome, the urbs septicollis, as Suetonius called it (The Lives of the Caesars “Domitian” 5). Classical literature is full of references to this topographical feature of the city (Vergil, Aeneid 6.783; Georgics 2.535; Horace, Odes 7; Ovid, Tristia 1.5.69; Martial, Spectacles 4.64; Cicero, Letters to Atticus 6.5). In short, “the woman you saw is that great city” (verse 18). The seven 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.

Wednesday, December 19

Revelation 19:1-24: 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 in order to describe her plight.

Thursday, December 20

Luke 1:26-38: The most significant fact about Mary was her consent to God’s invitation. Absolutely everything else recorded in the four gospels depended on that consent. Without human consent there was no salvation. Without Mary’s response to the angel, we would still be in our sins. Without Mary’s response to the angel, there would be no Sermon on the Mount, no walking on the water, no healing on the Sabbath.

Apart Mary’s response to the angel, the blind man of Jericho would still be blind, the widow’s son at Nain would still be dead, and Zacchaeus would never have climbed the sycamore tree. The sisters of Lazarus would still be weeping at his tomb. All of these things came from Mary’s consent to the angel.

Revelation 19:1-10: The previous chapter spoke of the destruction of Babylon, pictured as a woman dressed in scarlet. The present chapter speaks of a contrasting woman, dressed in white, who is called the Bride. A wedding is planned. There is no vision of the Bride just yet, however, nor does John specifically identify her. He will see and describe her in Chapter 21.

We begin the chapter with the “Alleluia.” Although our own experience may prompt us to associate that fine prayer with the sight and scent of lilies, here in Revelation it resounds against the background of smoke rising from a destroyed city. The worship scene portrayed here is related to victory over the forces of hell. The word, “avenge,” at the end of verse 2 reminds us there is a principle of vengeance built into the theological structure of history, for the judgments of God are true and righteous. Sodom and Gomorrah come to mind when we read of this smoke ascending for ever and ever. The worship becomes so warm at verse 6 that Handel decided to set it to music.

By portraying the reign of God as a marriage feast, John brings together three themes, all of them familiar to the Christians of his day: First, the kingdom of God as a banquet, such as we find in Isaiah 25:6. Jesus interpreted the banquet, however, as a marriage feast (Luke 14:15-16). John stresses readiness for the feast (verse 7), much as we find in the parable of the ten maidens at the beginning of Matthew 25.

Second, the marriage theme itself, as a symbol of the union of God with man. We find this theme in the prophets (most notably Hosea, but also Isaiah and Jeremiah) and the New Testament (Ephesians 5:32, for instance). The Lamb, who is the groom here, has already been identified earlier in Revelation.

Third, the theme of the garments, which now become the clothing required for attendance at the feast. John has appealed to this imagery several times already (3:4; 6:11; 7:14). The identification of the white garments with righteous deeds puts one in mind of the parable in Matthew 22:11-13.

Friday, December 21

Luke 1:39-56: Luke’s earliest and arguably most significant use of this expression, “full of the Holy Spirit,” refers to John the Baptist, of whom Gabriel tells Zacharias: “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15).

This striking prophecy is fulfilled only twenty-six verses later, when the unborn infant’s response to this filling with the Holy Spirit is to jump for joy inside his mother’s body. Indeed, the mother herself is filled with the Holy Spirit: “And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41).

Furthermore, Elizabeth credits this outpouring of the Holy Spirit to the sound of Mary’s voice: “For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy” (1:44).

And what does the Holy Spirit prompt Elizabeth to say to Mary? “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (1:42). This is the way that one addresses the Mother of God, if one is filled with the Holy Spirit. This point is emphatic.

The word “blessed” in Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary is not the makarios, or “happy,” of the Beatitudes (though this is used in the same context in Luke 1:45, 48). It is, rather, evlogemene, the participle of the verb “to bless.” This particular “blessed” is of the same root as the “blessed” (eulogetos) in Zacharias’s “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel,” a detail surely significant inasmuch as Zacharias himself is also described in that passage as “filled with the Holy Spirit” when he said it (1:67–68).

Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary was bound to become part of the faith and piety of God’s Church, inasmuch as it is explicitly said to have been given by the Holy Spirit. Like “Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15) and “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3), “Blessed are you among women” is a pronouncement prompted by the Holy Spirit. “Blessed are you among women” pertains to the Spirit-given substance of the Christian faith. Like Elizabeth who “cried out with a loud voice,” Christians render this identical greeting to the one whom they know as “the mother of my Lord” (1:42–43).