Thursday, January 8, 2009

The 4th W: When?

We can ask/answer this question quickly and we can answer this question in a more informative way. The quick question is: Where was the book of Revelation written? The quick answer is: On the Island of Patmos.

If you do a google search of Patmos, you’ll discover that it is a small Greek island that is part of a chain of islands in the Aegean Sea. The writer, John, locates himself there in the first chapter of the book of Revelation (vv.9-11), as well as the churches to whom he is writing:

I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.’

Because John identifies himself with the persecution of churches that he is addressing, readers of Revelation have long assumed that John’s presence on the island of Patmos is the result of a political exile.

So, the quick answer to the quick question is, John was on the island of Patmos, writing to seven churches on the western mainland.

Now, if you are the kind that likes quick answers, then STOP!
If you like paths that twist and turn and take you into places normally reserved for episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” then let’s keep going.

Oh, so you’re still with me, eh? You must be the curious, adventurous type. That’s fine, but don’t say that I didn’t warn you.

The question arises (see one of the possibilities under ‘when’) of whether John had the vision on the island and then wrote the book of Revelation later, perhaps even somewhere else, when his exile was over and he had better access to writing implements and so forth.

Why would I ask such a thing? Because there is a curious element to this book that is worth thinking about. Let me illustrate: Imagine my older brother Chris, coming to me and saying the following: “Hey, Mom said that we can’t say ‘Shut up’ any more, because ‘Shut up’ is mean and it hurts people’s feelings when you say ‘Shut up’, so if you say ‘Shut up’ again you’re going to be on restriction for a week.”

Question: Did my brother say ‘Shut up’ four times, thus warranting four weeks worth of restriction? Or, was he simply informing me about the new prohibition, its rationale, and the consequences? If you were my mother, would he be in trouble?

Likewise, when John says that he heard a voice saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to these churches” and then he writes what he heard and describes what he saw- is he simply telling about his experience of the vision and voices? Or, is he actually writing the book like he was told? When John says (v.12) “Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man…” was that description part of the vision that he was supposed to write to the churches? Or, is the part that John was to address to the seven churches only the letters that begin, “To the church in Sardis, write …” (all of which are in chapters 2 and 3). And when the letters are done (beginning of chapter 4), is John finished doing what the first voice commanded him, so that when he says “After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open!” was he no longer obeying the first command but was not getting some bonus time?

These are not simple or even a smart-alecky questions. The same litany of questions could be raised with regard to John’s phrase “I was in the spirit…” which happens in 1:10, but then, in 4:2 he says, “At once I was in the spirit….” Is the implication that somewhere between 1:10 and 4:2 John ceased to be ‘in the spirit’ and was just hanging around in the flesh like the rest of us?

I guess what I am saying is that even the simple question, “When?” is not simple when we are reading apocalyptic literature. We approach such questions with the kind of certainty that we learned in history classes in school, where dates and places seemed to be fixed in time. But, when reading poetic, symbolic, apocalyptic literature like the book of Revelation, we have to be willing to let “a” be “a” and “not-a” all at the same time. Things are what they are, and they are what they are not. Words are literal and not-literal, all at the same time. I guess my only advice would be that we need to “surrender to the text” and leave our assumptions behind.

Next post: the 5th W!

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