Tuesday, March 2, 2010

De-Freakyfying John's Apocalypse

The last book of the Christian scriptures in the Bible - the Apocalypse (Revelation) of John - has had a rocky past with its handlers. While my tradition - the Church of the Brethren - has tended to not get freaky with John's Revelation, neither do I recall any sort of serious work with this text in the context of Sunday morning worship services growing up (my primary mode of receiving Scripture in my youth). The broadly Protestant, rural Midwestern (Iowan) environment that I grew up in, however, did contain some strands of the Christian faith that were more receptive to...um...freaky interpretations of John's letter. Last summer on my Honnold.org website, in a discussion that started on a completely different topic, we somehow we got onto the subject of freakiness in connection to Revelation, with a few guys around my age and growing up in the same kind of environment sharing some interesting stories about their youthful experiences in congregations with Revelation. Read through it there if you're curious, I won't go any further here. Suffice it say that this topical side-track discussion of Revelation was a perfect illustration of how this text has been used and abused, especially within American Christianity in the last 100 years or so.

The broad goal of this post is to begin narrating my own coming to grips with this purportedly wild and crazy book of Scripture: Revelation. Over the past 9 months, I've grown to have a deep appreciation for John's Apocalypse, and have even begun to see how it is a key interpretive text for the Christian faith...although not in ways that many Christians have bought into, in part due to my Anabaptist/nonviolent orientation. Hopefully to people who read it (hint: it's long and all text), it can offer a refreshing perspective. It is work done in faith, within the life of the Church. May it be edifying to the body.

First, read the passage itself: Revelation 5:1-14 (NIV) from BibleGateway.com
Then, read on for my lengthy exploration of this pivotal passage from the Apocalypse of John...

“Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders
a Lamb
standing as if it had been slaughtered...” (v. 6)

The vivid imagery, numbers, and symbols of Revelation – as well as its popular reputation – keep many readers at bay from its pages.  But as we shall see in this paper, Revelation is tapestry-like work of art with significant theological weight in the broader Christian tradition that many believers may take for granted. Its eschatological vision of God's saving, redeeming plan for human history and all of creation spans the universe and twists the very fabric of time. This pericope, Revelation 5:1-14, is a key text as it is the point of appearance of the Lamb of God into history and the reality-changing qualities of this appearance. Finally, this passage is a song of praise to God and the Lamb, as they unite and perfect their will, preparing for the work of executing God's will for his creation.

Contextual Analysis
The book of Revelation was likely written near the end of the 1st century, between 80 and 100 CE.1 The author identifies himself as John.  Traditionally, authorship had been attributed to John, the apostle of Jesus, but this view has since been mostly dismissed based on comparative language analysis between Revelation and John's gospel, exposing significant gaps, with the Greek of Revelation being described as “idiosyncratic,” perhaps even the author's second language.2 Also, the author himself does not seem to describe himself in such a way that would lend weight to his position as apostle.

John places himself geographically on the island of Patmos (1:9), which is “in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Asia Minor or modern Turkey.”3 The setting and date range of authorship place Revelation squarely in the midst of the Roman Empire, after the destruction of the Second Temple and sacking of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

It seems likely that John landed himself on the island of Patmos for his preaching. As Koester notes, “Those deemed guilty of promoting superstition were sent to islands – and Christianity was regarded as a superstition by its opponents.”4

Revelation is, among other things, a letter to seven churches in Asia Minor.  These congregations were facing certain issues which the revelation explores: some were experiencing persecution, others had become too accommodating to Greco-Roman culture, while still others had become complacent.5 So while John refers to himself as a “brother” (1:9) of these congregations, it is this burning vision of God's revelation and all its authority which he must communicate to these churches.

We are not given the nature of the persecution that John and at least one of these congregations has suffered (1:9), but we are offered a bit of detail on some rivals, such as “a prophetess nicknamed Jezebel and some traveling teachers or apostles, whose message he opposed.”6 There was no Empire-wide persecution of Christians at this point, although just like any group linked to Judaism during the 1st century, these churches would have been in a consistently uncomfortable relationship with their Roman overseers, particularly over the issue of taxation.7

The book of Revelation is a work of apocalyptic literature with innovative twists on the genre, as well as containing aspects of other genres, namely epistle and prophesy. Apocalyptic literature is generally constituted by a number of elements including: cosmic, universe-encompassing scope, a dualistic cosmology, an eschatological nature, the experience of an “ecstatic vision, dream, or supernatural journey...by the author, who is normally a great person from Israel's history,” and finally, extensive use of symbolism.8 The book of Revelation breaks with convention on the fourth point, as the author is not assuming the identity of anyone from Israel's history.  Rather, the apocalypse, or revelation, itself is attributed directly to Jesus Christ which is communicated from God to John, “his servant,” via an angel (1:1). In regards to the genre of prophecy, Revelation does contain elements – including a command to the author in chapter 10 to eat a scroll and prophesy – but these must be kept in perspective of the overriding apocalyptic qualities of the work.

Tate notes that there are stark contrasts between the two genres. First, prophetic works offer a contingency to, or a way out of, the current fallen situation for humanity where as with apocalyptic literature the current state of affair with humans is so “far beyond redemption” that God must intervene. Second, prophetic works look to the future when all is well for the people who have heeded God's call to repent, while with apocalypse “history will in fact terminate.”  Finally, prophetic works are poetic in form while apocalyptic literature takes on a narrative format.9

Revelation is framed as an epistle with the author, John, identifying himself and his intended audience, “the seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4).  Also common is the command to have the letter read aloud to the congregation (1:3).  New Testament (NT) epistles in general innovate on the traditional Greek epistle form in the fact that their wish of peace is given theological significance and even springs from divine sources. In John's apocalypse, this tie to the divine in the wish of peace is given the added weight of divine revelation. Finally, in chapter 22 the letter closes with warnings to those who would add or take away from it (vv. 18 & 19) and bids that “the grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.” (v. 21)  Thus ends the letter and the revelation.

Charles identifies another way looking at the form of Revelation, namely its liturgical nature. He also points out the “hymnic” qualities of the worship of God and the Lamb by the heavenly hosts and indeed all creation in chapters four & five is “crucial” and that “presupposed is OT and Jewish worship in the temple and synagogue, much of which was carried over into the liturgy of the early Christian community.”10 The hymnic nature of this worship in Revelation does lend itself quite well to other liturgical works in scripture, such as the Psalms, and even hymnic passages from Hebrew prophecy, such as in Isaiah.

All of this is to say that the literary qualities of Revelation are many and overlapping, which contribute to its rich character.

With the mix of genres described in the previous section, it is clear that Revelation fits in well in the NT canon. With clear connections to epistolary forms prevalent in the NT, along with an awareness of, and work with, contemporary congregational issues for the early church, Revelation is a key interpretive text.  The presupposed self-sacrificing death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in Revelation, illustrated by the Lamb, is given further scriptural weight by its Old Testament allusions and imagery scattered throughout the book. The Bible is most certainly the home for Revelation.

By the middle to end of the 2nd century CE, the book of Revelation had been circulated and embraced with few exceptions in the East and West, and continued to enjoy broad acceptance in the West through the 4th and 5th centuries, with some ambivalence forming in the Eastern church during this period.11 Revelation has continued to hold its place in the NT canon. Through the period of the Protestant Reformation and stretching into modern times, the book has been widely interpreted and applied in the church. One hermeneutical lens includes those who “either believe they have a role to play in bringing about the apocalypse or by their visionary conviction seek to encourage others to bring that to pass,” even connecting this lens to the Anabaptists of Muenster in the 16th century.12 Another interpretive lens involves looking at the contents of the book in relation to historical events that have already occurred.

Formal Analysis – Form, Structure, Movement
Consistent with the narrative form of the book as a whole, Revelation 5:1-14 is part of that overall story of John's ecstatic vision which he is communicating to his audience in the modified epistle format. Also consistent with the whole is the extensive use of sensory writing. In just 14 passages there are 24 explicit or implicit references to the senses, particularly sight, touch, and sound. This use of vivid sensory language moves quickly and is driven by conjunctive words such as “then,” creating a sense of endless and busy action, plowing ever forward, as if on rails.  In the midst of this experience, the author does not have time to stop and reflect on what is happening.  It is overwhelming, to both the senses and emotions, with the author even breaking down and crying early on.

This pericope can be structured in a three-part chiastic pattern:
A – “Who is worthy...?” (vv. 1-4)
B – “The Lion of the tribe of Judah...has conquered” (vv. 5-7)
A' - “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered” (vv. 8-14)

Structuring the pericope in this way allows the emphasis to be placed on the key interpretive symbol and character in all of Revelation: the Lamb, who first appears in v. 6.  The emotional tension is set up by the angel asking “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” (v. 2) In the next section, the answer is given: the Lamb, who then takes the scroll from God's hand.  In response, the entire gathered heavenly assembly and eventually all of creation bursts out in song, worshipping God and the Lamb.

Detailed Analysis
“Who is worthy...?” (vv. 1-4)
This pericope starts out immediately with an active sensory observation.  After having walked into the heavenly throne room in the preceding chapter, the author now notices a scroll with writing on both sides in the right hand of the one seated on the throne. MacLeod notes that writing on both sides of a scroll was not typical practice, as the process of making papyrus scrolls suited one side better for writing than the other.13
The seven seals on the scroll offer a hint on the nature of its contents.  Charles states that “according to Roman stipulations the sealing of a will was done in the presence of seven witnesses.”14 Within the context of the pericope, we are not given who or what these seven witnesses might be – if the nature of the scroll is indeed a will – but it does offer us a possibility for interpretation. Coming from the hand of God, seated on the throne, this scroll could represent his will, his plan for what must unfold in the history of creation. Finally, the number of seals, seven, is also important, as we will see later. As the number seven is often considered sacred and representing perfection or completion15, we can take this to mean that God's will is perfect and all-encompassing.  It is this understanding of the scroll's nature that will be assume in further discussion.

Problems arise in v. 2 when a mighty angel asks who is going to open this scroll by breaking its seals, presumably becoming the executor of God's will. John sees this question being asked and hears the “loud voice” (v. 2) of the angel asking it to the gathered assembly. Verse 3 heightens the suspense when seemingly every creature in all the realms – heavenly, earthly, and subterranean – has a chance and fails at opening the scroll and seeing its contents.  This verse is a great example of the elastic nature of time and space in Revelation, as the setting explodes from the presumed heavenly throne room to the entire created universe.  Time warps to make room for all of creation a chance at opening the scroll.  Nothing in all of creation or all of time is able to do this.  John experiences it all.

The author is crushed to witness this failure. No one or no thing is worthy to do this, so in v. 4 he begins weeping bitterly in response. If King Hezekiah wept bitterly to hear news of his impending death from the prophet, Isaiah (2 Kgs 20:3), imagine John's utter emotional despair at trying to deal with God's will for creation being sealed up in that scroll, with no one to open it.  This collapsed emotional state is what closes the first section of this pericope.  Fortunately, there is hope.  And to that hope we now turn.

“The Lion of the tribe of Judah...has conquered” (vv. 5-7)
Apparently, John is situated near one of the 24 elders seated in their own thrones surrounding the throne of God (4:4).  Seeing John's bitter weeping, one of these elders reaches out to comfort him, with knowledge that the author does not have.  In v. 5, after asking him to stop weeping, the elder invites John to look at, or understand, something new. The Greek word, idou, translated as “see” in v. 5 of the NRSV does not necessarily limit the perception to the visual sense and is commonly translated as “behold” in the KJV.16

But this something new that the elder invites John to see or behold is actually quite old in some sense.  It is “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (v. 5), which pulls in the messianic thread of the Hebrew prophets.  So the new understanding that the elder is calling John to is connected to the history of Israel, both historically and theologically. The elder knows this Lion is able to break the seven seals and open the scroll, executing the will of the one seated on the throne. The elder's knowledge is based on the fact that this Lion “has conquered” (v. 5). What this Lion has conquered is not clear at this point in the text, but the elder's invitation to John is enough to get his attention.

His attention redirected in v. 6, John looks and sees something new: “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.”  This Lamb is in the midst of the 24 elders seated around the throne and also in the midst of the four living creatures situated on each side of the throne (4:6). Repeating the number seven, perfection and completion, the author sees this number of horns and eyes, which we are given an interpretation for.  These horns and eyes represent “the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (v. 6). For those Christians steeped in trinitarian theological tradition, this statement might take us off guard at first glance.  But again, the understanding of the number seven in this verse might have it read alternatively: “the perfect, whole Spirit of God sent out into all the earth.”

Going back to the idea of this Lamb “standing as if it had been slaughtered” (v. 6) might give us an idea of what has been conquered, something the elder mentions to John in v. 5, connecting it then to the Lion of the tribe of Judah.  First off, the Lion is the Lamb. Next, by somehow standing after having been slaughtered, the Lamb signals that it is death and brokenness which has been conquered.

Verse 7 (there it is again!) is the focal point of this entire pericope.  The passage balances on both sides of this single act: the Lamb takes the scroll from the right hand of God. He is worthy. He is perfect. And when this happens, everything changes.

It is worth noting that this section of the pericope, vv. 5-7, has the most “normal” flow of time and sense of space than the preceding or the following sections.  There is no twisting and contortion of spatial awareness or compression of time for mind-bending events to occur.  Amidst the rest of the narrative this feels like a slow-motion scene in a movie, with tight focus on the Lamb walking to the throne and simply taking the scroll, something no one or nothing else in creation was capable of doing.

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered” (vv. 8-14)
The rest of this pericope is a reaction to the Lamb taking the scroll, which seems to have a wave-like effect, starting in the epicenter and expanding out to all creation. Like before, the pace seems to quicken and the scope of the temporal plane becomes universe-encompassing. 

First, in v. 8, those nearest the throne, the 24 elders and four living creatures fall before the Lamb.  In the possession of each of them is a harp and a bowl full of incense. Like the horns and eyes on the Lamb, we are given the significance of these harps and bowls, “which are the prayers of the saints” (v. 8), the believers. When the elders and the creatures were introduced in ch. 4, they were falling down and worshiping and singing praises to the one seated on the throne and affirming him “worthy...to receive glory and honor and power” (4:11). They have now shifted their focus to the Lamb.

And what they sing is a new song, naming the Lamb worthy to break the seals of the scroll and open it up, signifying his ability to execute God's perfect will. They go on in song to say that it is by the blood of the Lamb which has been spilled that he “ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (v. 9). Finally, these saints are named as a distinct kingdom of priests. Their purpose is to serve God and “reign on the earth” (v. 10).

Next, the author sees and hears something new in the heavenly throne-room: countless angels joining in the chorus. They repeat the affirmation of the Lamb's worthiness for having been slaughtered.  In v. 12, the angels proceed to list the things the Lamb is worthy to receive.  Interestingly, the list is seven items in length, again signifying the perfection of the Lamb's sacrifice and complete worthiness to be worshiped right alongside the one seated on the throne.

The mighty chorus singing praises to the Lamb reaches a crescendo when every single creature in God's creation joins in wishing “blessing and glory and might” (v. 13) to not only the Lamb, now, but also the one seated on the throne, finally equating the two in regards to glory and honor.

Lastly, to close the joyful outburst of worshipful song, the action comes quickly back to the circle of 24 elders and four living creatures surrounding the throne.  The creatures cry “Amen!” (v. 14) to all that has been exclaimed about this new development in history, and the elders fall down and worship, bringing our pericope to an exhausted close.

Revelation 5:1-14 is a crucial text in that it introduces the Lamb of God, who is at least in some respects the equal to the one sitting on the throne.  What begins as a yearning for the will of God to be fulfilled, turning to despair on the part of the author, soon sees the appearance of the Lamb.  By his presupposed self-sacrifice he is able to take the scroll, eventually bringing God's will to completion in the subsequent chapters of Revelation. In response to this development, all of creation erupts in a new song to worship and praise this Lamb along with the one sitting on the throne.

The book of Revelation intimidates or even scares many Christians, even ones who are biblically literate.  Its sad history of misinterpretation and subsequent abuse are a tragedy. On my own website, which consists mostly of idle chatter amongst a small number of friends, most of whom live in or are originally from Iowa, two men have shared stories of being terrified as children by the 1972 film by Russell S. Doughten (also an Iowan), “A Thief in the Night.” This is not a legacy befitting such a significant epistolary apocalypse.

While it is true that the more troubling elements of Revelation come later in the book, it seems clear to me from this pericope that the outburst of joyous, universe-filling praise of the one on the throne and the Lamb should be the lens through which the rest of the book is read. It is good news for church that should not be shied away from in congregational worship contexts, as the book itself is chock full of liturgically shaped worship to God. Indeed, the entirety of creation here is seen to be bent toward worshipping God.  As his priestly kingdom on earth, we should join in the mighty chorus.

Visual Analysis - courtesy of Wordle

1 Craig R. Koester. “Revelation, Book of.” The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (NIDB), Vol. 4. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, p. 786.
2 Ibid., p. 789.
3 Ibid., p. 787.
4 Ibid., p. 787.
5 Ibid., p. 787.
6 Ibid., p. 786.
7 Warren Carter. “Taxes, Taxation,” NIDB, Vol. 5 (2009), p. 479.
8 W. Randolph Tate. Biblical Interpretation : An Integrated Approach. 3d ed. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008, pp. 172-3.
9 Ibid., pp. 175-6.
10 Charles, J. Daryl. "An Apocalyptic Tribute to the Lamb (Rev 5:1-14)." Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 34, no. 4 (1991), p. 464.
11 Koester. “Revelation, Book of.” NIDB, Vol. 4 (2009), p. 796-7.< 12 Christopher Rowland. “Apocalypticism.” NIDB, Vol. 1 (2006), p. 194.
13 David J. MacLeod. "The Lion Who Is a Lamb: An Exposition of Revelation 5:1-7." Bibliotheca sacra 164, no. 655 (2007), p. 325.
14 Charles, “An Apocalyptic Tribute...,” p. 462.
15 M. Eugene Boring. “Seven, Seventh, Seventy,” NIDB, Vol. 5 (2009), p. 198.
16 Walter  Bauer, William Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature : A Translation and Adaptation of Walter Bauer's Griechisch-Deutsches Wörterbuch Zu Den Schriften Des Neuen Testaments Und Der Übrigen Urchristlichen Literatur, Fourth Revised and Augmented Edition. 4th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957, p. 371.

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