Part 1 of this Study outline was posted in August, 2007
Part 2 in Sept 2007
Part 3 on January 14 2008
Part 4 on Aug. 17 2008
Click on the appropriate year/month in Blog Archive (top, right) to find earlier sections
As the fourth section of Revelation ends, it might be worth quickly reviewing John's plan so far to ask if he has any kind of time sequence in mind. Farrer points out that "the visions of the seals have their centre in the present," but their conclusion points to the end of all things (though it is a pointer not the actual end). "The woes of the horsemen are also of the present age". He also notes that the seals and the woes of the trumpets are partial destruction. Final judgment waits until the section we are about to begin. Chapter 12, too, seems to look back to the ministry of Jesus, but it is followed by the revelation of the Beast (Antichrist) and the beginning of his reign.
Influence of Mark ch. 13
It is here that we need to recall the immense authority that Mark 13 would have had for the author. Critical study of the last century and a half has increasingly suggested that the apocalyptic sections of the Synoptic gospels, with Mark as the focus, may well contain original sayings of Jesus, but also strongly reflect the position of the first generation church. Denis Nineham writes that scholars have suggested (among many other theories) “that a Jewish-Christian document, drawn up in A.D. 40 to encourage and advise Christians, was subsequently incorporated into the tradition of Jesus’ words”. (Penguin Commentaries - St. Mark p.353). A footnote to this section reads, “No doubt of it [the document] emanated from a Jewish-Christian ‘seer’, it was thought of from the beginning as, in a very real sense, a word of the exalted Lord.” The conclusion is that we cannot be certain that every word in this section goes back to Jesus, though there can be no doubt that John certainly believed that to be the case.
First Generation Eschatology
Christian belief (about the end, eschaton) in the latter part of the first century seems fairly clear. The divine intervention was centered on the coming of Jesus, and the events of his ministry, and, above all, on his atoning death and resurrection. This was was seen as the decisive act of God, the beginning of the end of history, (cf. Paul you are already saved, and the 4th Gospel's repeated insistence that those who believe have already passed from death to life, already share eternity). Nevertheless, it was also strongly believed that the process of history was not quite complete, and would be completed by a speedy return of Christ (“the second coming”), and the imagery of Daniel’s Son of Man, coming on the clouds of glory, is firmly incorporated into the words of Jesus as they were passed on and finally written down. That he also used the term to refer to himself as humble and identified with suffering humanity (cf. Mk 10.45 and many other refs.), may suggest the origin of the later apocalyptic usage, and it remains possible that Jesus pointed to the theme of vindication in Daniel: applied to the persecuted saints and then to the saints in glory, vindicated by God. (Dan 7.22 & 27ff). The Christian tradition, though, has made a sea change. In Daniel the Son of Man is going to God to receive the reward of perseverance in the face of persecution: in the later NT, he is coming from God (returning to complete the divine plan and finalize the Rule of God).
The Markan Apocalypse
Mark 13 begins with warnings against deceivers. (Letters to Churches, week 1). It says before the end there must be wars, rumors of wars, famines and all kinds of distress. (Four horsemen, week 2). Mark’s Apocalypse includes persecution that reaches a climax (Mk 13.14) with the 'abomination of desolation'. John Sweet writes, “In Revelation all this is rephrased in terms of the two witnesses and the two beasts which form the climax of the trumpet plagues. In John’s time the danger was not....’false Christs’... the danger now was not of Rome desecrating the temple at Jerusalem - it had already been destroyed - but of the Roman world desecrating the spiritual temple, the church, in the person of Christian fellow-travelers”. (i.e. those who fell prey to emperor worship, or at least to “accommodation” with the imperial power). (Commentary on Revelation p. 20).
All this suggests that the final action of the apocalyptic scene is beginning. Mark 13 “has little to say about this final stage of the drama, and goes on to warnings about preparedness: it will happen within this generation, but no one except God knows the precise day (Mk 13.28-end)” (Sweet, p. 20f).
Revelation 19.11-16 gives us the climax of the Apocalypse, and so between 15.9 and 19.11 we seem to have prophecies of judgment, preceding the end and revealed as each “bowl” is poured out.
We are presented with a series of judgments on the rebellious world. The first four "bowls of wrath" follow closely the pattern of the plagues in ch. 8, and, therefore, hark back to the Plagues of Egypt. In this 'week', though, the destruction is total. The powers of nature are taken from humanity (since they have abused the trust given them), and, in poetic justice, are turned on the desecrators.
vv.5-7 Specifically, the beast and his followers have killed the righteous ones.
Vengeance in the Book of Revelation
We have noted that using the conventions of Jewish apocalyptic writings, this is clearly a Christian apocalypse. It is moving to a Trinitarian view of God; it places the atoning life and death of Jesus at the centre of God's saving plan (Lamb is used 28 times), and it takes for granted a Christian liturgy. Even so, many feel that there is a strong taste of the OT about this book (cf.6.10; 14.11 & 20; 18.20; 19.17-21, etc.). There is a feel of vengeance, almost gloating over enemies, that goes beyond the exercise of righteous judgment. Above all, there is no reference to love.
Various answers have been given:
a) the wrath is against corrupt institutions rather than individuals;
b) it is part of the exaggeration of apocalyptic style;
c) there are some hints (much less aggressive) in the teaching of Jesus (cf. his condemnation of the Pharisees).
It has also been noted that the image of the Lamb is one of sacrificial giving (=love in the fully Christian sense).
Sweet has an excellent comment: The beast that looks like a lamb but speaks like a dragon (13.11) "is a deliberate parody of the spirit of the Lamb, whose only power is that of the sword which issues from his mouth (1.16; 2.12; 19.15) - his words that pierce men's souls (cf. Heb. 4.12). Is this 'slaughter' simply punitive, leading to eternal torment? Or does it represent the impact of truth on illusion - the only possibility of true healing?”*1 (Revelation p. 51)
vv.9-11 still no repentance is seen, following the pattern of Pharaoh's 'hardened heart'.
12-end the 6th and 7th judgments, (a) open the frontiers to the barbarian hordes (the stock pattern of judgment in Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah), (b) set the scene for the final "battle" somewhere near Megiddo (Harmagedon = mountain of Megiddo) ), and (c) administer the coup de grace on the created order; the power of John's writing is seen in the short verse 20.
v. 15 note the clear reference back to the fifth letter (3.3), and a reminder that in spite of 'baroque' excursions, there is an overall pattern in the book.
Chapters 17 & 18
As in the case of earlier 'sevens', two substantial codas are added to the week. Here we get a kind of "close-up" of the destruction that has been mapped out in ch. 16.
Ch. 17 is in a general sense about the corrupt and corrupting power of imperial Rome, though the precise references of the symbolism in vv 9-14 are probably lost to us. (cf. chart in HarperCollins Study Bible p. 2330; none of the counting is entirely satisfactory). Seven Caesars are implied and the sixth is reigning. As usual, if this is a prediction of the end of history, it was wrong. John might have taken Jesus' warning to heart not to ask when and where.*2
It is more probable, thinks Sweet, that John is using the numbers symbolically. Note that six and eight appear again (as in the number of the beast and the number of Christ). Six is Friday, the day when evil seems dominant, and the eighth is a parody of the Christ who "goes to perdition"; (i.e. the anti-Christ pointing to the end)
Here we have one of the ‘purple passages’ of the bible: full of dramatic movement and intense feeling, even so, it sets out the fundamental theological position of the book. There is an ultimate rejection of all that is contrary to truth and justice. Money, political power, military power, hierarchical dominance, and flagrant exploitation of the poor, have dominated human history and apparently have the upper hand. The Book of Revelation, and this chapter in particular, say that is not so in the end, and we ought to have known it was not so by looking on the crucified one, the Lamb whose only weapon is the word of God and obedience to the Righteous (judging) and Loving (accepting) God.
v.4 "come out" cf. God' warning to Lot in Gen 19.15. cf also Isa. 52.11
HarperCollins Study Bible has some pertinent notes on this chapter.
This section closes (as have the earlier septets) with a Liturgy - ch. 19.1-10.
v.3 is probably an intended and ghoulish contrast to the incense of heaven (5.8 & 8.4)
vv. 1-4 give thanks for deliverance from the corrupt and evil power of 'Babylon' (= the center of world power century by century).
vv 5-10 center on the reign of God. The negative side is the judgment of Babylon, the positive is the marriage of God with his people, an image that dominates the closing section of the book. The idea is found in the OT in the Prophet Hosea where Yahweh's choice of Israel is seen as a marriage cf Isa. 54.6. In the NT see II Cor 11.2 and Eph 5.25-27.
v.9 combines the stock idea of a "messianic banquet", the sign that the new age has dawned with rejoicing and plenty. In the Christian tradition, the development of the Eucharist owes much to these eschatological ideas, and also exemplifies a specifically Christian theme we have already noted, namely that the age to come has come and that Christians already have a foretaste of the joys of heaven.
The Concluding section - 19.11-22.7
What follows is in my notes from lectures by one of my Seminary Professors, Fr. Gabriel Hebert SSM, a great NT scholar. I assume that I added the extended quotation form Austin Farrer after the lecture, based on the given page references
"Farrer says (p. 302) that after our Lord has come, (19.11ff), ‘the order of events is simply narrated; it is the accepted stock of rabbinic eschatology, the Great Battle, the Kingdom of Messiah, the rebellion of Gog, the Last Judgment, the World to come...We may draw the general conclusion that St. John describes only two future stages of history, in addition to the present stage; the Advent of Antichrist and the Advent of Christ … The Advent of Christ releases the eschatological series proper, from the Great Battle to the World to come. St. John treats this as a unit, because to the Christian everything is secured once Christ has come'.
So it is in Mark 13, where nothing more is described after the coming of the Son of Man with power and great glory. This seems to be right. 19.1-11 is set forth with great beauty; but the events which follow are lightly treated, and St. John does not get going again till ch. 21 and the magnificent description of the New Jerusalem.
Yet it is this intervening section, including the bit about the Millennium, which has attracted most attention from the expositors."
Gabriel was pointing out the dangers of concentrating on a single passage quite out of context leading, in the case of millenarianism, to both theological and political distortions on a sometimes disastrous scale.
The fusion of right wing conservative millenarianism and USA foreign policy in the last half century is chillingly exposed in a recent book by Angela M. Lahr: Millennial Dreams & Apocalyptic Nightmares – The Cold War Origins of Political Evangelism OUP, 2007
The climax of the Book
i) 19.11-16 The Rider on the White horse. The picture correlates with the opening vision (1.12-16). A series of names indicate his being and function. The unknown name may refer to Mt. 11.27. It has overtones of the fact that in Judaism, the name YHWH (Yahweh) was replaced by "Adonai" (Lord).
ii) 19.17-18 A summons to great battle foretold in prophecy and apocalyptic (Ezek 39.4, 17-20).
iii) 19.19-21 The victory (cf. 17.12ff)
iv) 20.1-3 The binding of Satan for 1000 years. This one piece of fairly unimportant symbolism (for John an apocalyptic "prop" that was ‘required’ in apocalyptic writing) has assumed an importance out of all proportion to its meaning here (see comment above on Millenarianism). The seven days of history scheme often assumed that each day = a thousand years (II Pe 3.8), and so Satan is retrained to allow his victims to be released (cf. Mt. 12.29).
v) 20.4-10 The idea of two resurrections is peculiar to John; the Pharisaic view was of a "general" resurrection at the end of this age. John puts in a further "last throw" of the empire of evil. (It reminds one of many historical final desperate offensives of failing empires).
vi) 20.11-15 The universal judgment: a truly awe-inspiring piece of writing.
vii) 21.1-8 The New Jerusalem; creation restored, God is all in all, and Evil is finally conquered.
As in previous "sevens", there follow two more sections, a vision of the New Jerusalem and the River of living water.
John closes with a brief epilogue. We are back in Patmos; the warnings against apostasy are renewed, and the certainty of Jesus’ second coming is emphasized. The Prayer is Marana tha. Amen, found at the end of I Corinthians, and in one of the very earliest eucharistic prayers known (in The Didaché):
Let grace come, and let this world pass away.
Hosanna to the God of David.
Whoever is holy, let him come; whoever is not, let him repent.
Marana tha. Amen
The book ends like a letter, reminding us that all the visions are part of the Pastoral Letter to the churches, which themselves have allusions to the visions (cf 3.12; 3.18; 2.10). There are clear overtones of the Eucharist (as in 3.20), for in the Eucharist, Christ comes with a foretaste of heaven. In the closing verses of the Apocalypse, "There is a last call to the hearer to choose, and a final prayer to Christ to come, and bring with him the Holy Communion of eternity". (Sweet, p. 314)
1. Farrer has something along the same lines. "There is nothing amiable about refusing to awaken the consciences of your impenitent neighbours to the impending coals of fire.....When nature breaks forth in singular disasters or when the madness of (man) is permitted to break loose in war and its attendant horrors....we ought to see warnings of what the arm of the Almighty cannot for ever with hold". He goes on to suggest that if St. John returned today, he might say I warned you that fire would fall from heaven. "'well it has fallen. You complain that it is vindictive of me to give you warning. If you had repented...you would have had cause to be grateful. And if you still think that God will build into the stainless city any that loves or works a lie, rather than cast him into everlasting fires. I advise you to look to your consciences.'" (Rebirth of Images,
2. Another excellent insight from Farrer: "the two constituent parts of pagan power are military kingship and urban wealth. Ever since the days of Alexander the two have been unhappily adjusted". The city hopes the military emperor (a god) will keep his armies away and she offers homage to achieve this. At times, however, the General pillages the city. "Such are the loves and quarrels of the Beast and Babylon, the parody of that marriage there is betwixt Christ and his Church". (R.I. p. 298).
We might meditate on the alliance of urban wealth and the military infrastructure in our own imperial world.