Monday, January 26, 2009

A Lamb's Guide to Revelation Chapter 1

The book of Revelation begins this way:

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.

There are 5 actors in this verse, four of whom reveal in one way or another.

God - gave this revelation initially, which reminds us of Daniel's description, "there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries."

Jesus Christ - Since Jesus Christ seems to be the antecedent to the pronoun 'him,' this is not only a revelation 'of' ('about'?) Jesus Christ, but it was initially given 'to' Jesus Christ: "which God gave to him..." Then, following that antecedent, "He" (Jesus Christ) made it know by sending his angel to his servant John.

His Servants - These are the ones for whose sake the revelation of what must soon take place is given. Within the book of Revelation, they are the seven churches of Asia Minor, each of whom will be addressed in the next 2 chapters. They could be, more broadly, any of Christ's servants who are facing persecution at the time John is writing. If we want to suggest that they are us, then we have to reach beyond the book of Revelation to reach that conclusion.

Angel - Jesus makes the revelation known by 'sending his angel' to John. There is the possibility that Jesus' 'angel' is a way of talking about the risen Christ's presence in the world, which is really experienced, but not 'real' in the way that we are usually bodily present to one another. The Hebrew Bible narratives often speak this way about God. In Genesis 22, for example, God calls Abraham out of the heavens and later it says that the angel of God called Abraham a second time. God and God's angel seem to be two ways of saying the same thing at times.

John - More specifically "his [Jesus'] servant John." So, John identifies himself with the other servants to whom he is writing. John is 'testifying' to three things: He testifies to the word of God, he testifies to Jesus' testimony (testifying the testifying, as it were), and he testifies to all that he saw.

Verse 2 makes the line of communication a bit more complex:

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near. John to the seven churches that are in Asia...

Jeepers! There's a whole lotta testifying going on here, in just one-and-a-half verses! If you add in the history of how the next generations of the church gathered and preserved the Scriptures and then how those Scriptures were eventually translated and given to us, the line of succession goes something like this:

God - Jesus - Jesus' angel - John - Jesus' servants/readers and hearer of the seven churches - the church editors - the church preservers - translators - us!

Is it just me, or ought we to be kind of humbled when we read this book? By that, I mean that we ought to be hesitant to imagine that those of us who live right now are, in fact, the primary recipients and subjects of the revelation that is given here. It does strike me that, if we take these first verses seriously, we have to respect the possibility that this book is not talking about us- at least not in the sense that those whom we consider our enemies are the bad guys in this book and that the things that we fear are the foreboding evils of this book and that the word 'soon' means 'in our lifetime' and so forth.

One of the first premises of Left Behind Theology is that we are, in fact, living in the last days. Evangelists have been pushing this assumption for years by pointing to every next catastrophe, every next rising leader, every next empire-looking nation (or, if they are writing from within the empire, every next empire-threatening nation) and saying, "See, there it is, the thing that we have been hoping/dreading for so long is here!"

My premise is that the Scriptures have a timeless quality to them, insofar as they speak truthfully about God and God's way with humanity. In that sense, the book of Revelation is indeed about us, about our nation, about other nations, about our day, about other days both before and after us- because God is the creator and sustainer of all life. But, it is not about us in the sense that we- of all times and peoples- are really the ones about whom all of this drama culminates. That, to me, is simply a theologically arrogant starting point.

This book is a revelation of God, given to Jesus, who, by this angel, gave it to John, to share with the readers and hearers of seven churches of Asia. We, who believe that the Scriptures are reliable witnesses to God and God's way with the world, can read it profitably- if we get our arrogance out of the way first.

That's all I got for now.

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