Monday, February 2, 2009

A Lamb's Guide to Revelation 1: Jesus

The paradoxical revelation that the "lion of Judah" is actually a "lamb" does not occur until the 5th chapter of Revelation. Until that dramatic moment- which I consider to be a key verse in this book, if not the key verse- Jesus is introduced in this way:

The first reference says that the revelation we are about to hear/see/read is the revelation "of" Jesus Christ (1:1) An interpretive question is, "What does the word 'of' signify here?" The word 'of' (in the 'genitive' case) can mean possession (this sweater of mine), or participation (the author of the book), or it could be partative (one of the bunch), and so forth.

[Greek Grammarian Geek Alert: I know that I'm oversimplifying here, so leave me alone! Do NOT pull out your dog-eared copy of Machen's Introduction to the Greek Language. It's a blog, for crying out loud! Go exegete something.]

Phew, glad to get that off my chest. Now, what I was saying is that the opening line to the book of Revelation leaves it a bit unclear what kind of genitive this is. Is it "The revelation of Jesus Christ..." meaning that Jesus is the subject of everything that follows? That would be a nice, 'Christo-centric' way of reading this book. But, it appears that the words "The revelation of Jesus Christ..." is possessive here- the revelation we are about to read belongs to Jesus. In fact, John follows these words with the words, "... which God gave to him... (v.2)"- this revelation belongs to Jesus Christ, because God gave it to him. Then, Jesus (assuming that the 'he' that follows refers to Jesus) made the revelation known by sending his angel to John.

So, here's how Jesus is introduced in Revelation. He is the Christ (none of that 'messianic secret' motif that we see in the gospel of Mark!) and he is the recipient of this revelation and he is the grantor of this revelation via his angel to John.

My point: So far John's Christology (doctrine of Christ) is solidly within the early Christian tradition. Jesus is the Christ- that is the earliest Christian confession. And, Jesus is still mediating the Word of God to humanity- just in a different manner than when he was in the temple or on the mountain or on the cross.

The next reference to Jesus in 1:5, where the greeting is from God "and from Jesus Christ, the faithful martyr/witness, the firstborn of the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth."

Again, I would argue that John’s Christology is consistent with the way the other books of the New Testament, and the ‘teachings of the Apostles’ (as far as we can tell), and creedal statements about Jesus in the early church describe Jesus. Consistent, but not identical. Let’s break it down:

Jesus = the faithful witness/martyr.
The Greek word that is normally translated ‘witness’ is also the root of our word for ‘martyr.’ In fact, if you say it aloud it sounds like ‘martyr.’ However, I don’t want to overstate the case, there are plenty of examples where one is a ‘witness’ without having to lose one’s life for the cause, so it would be a little misleading to assume that ‘witnessing’ is the same thing as being martyred. Nonetheless, John’s description of Jesus as the faithful witness/martyr is consistent with the way the early church describes Jesus. As a ‘witness,’ Jesus is the one in whom the Word of God is “made flesh” (Gospel of John) or made known by preaching, teaching, healing, exorcising demons, etc. As a ‘martyr,’ Jesus died because of his faithful witness to God. And while various writers took different angles on what, exactly, the death of Jesus means, it is agreed by all of the writers that Jesus was a faithful witness and martyr.

Jesus = the firstborn of the dead.
Okay, this phrase is a little different. I would say that, quite obviously, it is a way of affirming the resurrection, which is consistent with all of the other writers of the early church. But, it is an interesting way of putting it. First to be born of the dead: We usually think of birthing and dying as the opposite ends of the spectrum. But, the Apostle Paul says (in a text that ought to be heard at every funeral), “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:3-5). Paul, too, is aligning death with the ‘newness of life’ or something like rebirth- which it signified in our baptism.

And finally, Jesus = the ruler of the kings of the earth.
I think this is a key phrase for John in everything that follows. Jesus is, as others put it, “King of Kings” or “Lord of Lords.” In some respects, this title posits Jesus over and against the Emperor, who also was considered the master of many subservient kings. King Agrippa, for example, or King Herod, were “kings” and masters of their ‘kingdoms,’ but their kingship was subject to the Emperor of Rome- they curried his favor, they ruled at his pleasure, and their fate was generally bound up with his fate. (When wanna be emperors like Octavian and Mark Antony would square off in battle, you can bet that the underling kings were nervous in how they expressed their allegiance!)

Jesus as Ruler of the Kings of the Earth: I will admit that I am not comfortable with the brutal implications of that title, but it is not inconsistent with most of the early church witnesses. The question would be whether the Lion/Lamb Jesus transforms this image of the Ruler of Kings, or whether the model of tyrants like the Caesars and other Emperors will win out in this book. Stay tuned…

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