REVELATION 11-22 contains A Tale of Two Temples, A Tale of Two Witnesses, and A Tale of Two Women, in addition to the Tale of Two Animals (The Lamb and the Dragon, or the Beast). Chapter 11 begins in the Temple of Jerusalem, with what reads like a description of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, which happened in 70 AD. The other temple we will encounter in Rev. 21-22, the New Jerusalem, in which The Lamb is the new temple. The old Jerusalem is also likened to Sodom and Egypt, a place of immorality and slavery. The tale of two witnesses could either refer to two Christian prophets there during the siege of 70 AD, or to Judaism itself. For the actions and powers of the two witnesses remind us of the Law (like Moses, turning the water to blood) and the prophets (like Elijah shutting up the sky from raining). And the resurrection of Judaism after the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah (and the world’s lamentable rejoicing over it) is nothing short of miraculous. This vignette ends with a vision of the heavenly temple (11: 15-19), in which are heard the words declaring the spread of the gospel: “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ….”), words which are evident from heaven’s perspective, but which are still visible here mostly by faith. And yet, the worldwide spread of the gospel, foretold in the scenes of worship in chs. 7 and 9, were made possible precisely by the church’s liberation from its Jerusalem apron strings in AD 70. Even while the Beast and his Anti-Christ (13: 11-18) reign on the earth, Christ reigns, increasingly so through the church, until it becomes evident to all in ways symbolized by the final chapters.
All this assumes that John’s Revelation is not to be read as a series of predictions to be awaited in chronological order. Rather, we are dealing with something more like a picture gallery in which we see current events, and even some past events, in a prophetic, apocalyptic perspective. Some of these are even universal, recurring events, such as war and the worship of emperors and empires.
One of those past/current events is the story of The Woman Clothed With the Sun (ch. 12), whose story sounds like that of Mary, giving birth to Jesus. Evidently, the infancy narratives already had wide dissemination in the first generations of the church. But hers is also the story of the church, giving birth in the menacing presence of the Beast. Her labor pains are ours as well (temptation, persecution, suffering, etc.). Her son is both Christ and the church, for we share his throne. The Dragon, or the Beast, in addition to his earthly manifestations, is identified with Satan, the prince of all rebellious angels. The travails and warfare on the earth are related to the travails and warfare going on in the spiritual realm. It is there where Christians wage their part of the battle, with prayer, patience and faithful witness.
THE MARK OF THE BEAST (Rev. 13: 16-17) has spawned a cottage industry of speculation. Before we decide that it has anything to do with today’s magnetic bar codes, consider again that it had to make sense to readers of the past twenty centuries, especially the First. The simplest answer may be the best: that corrupt and exploitive imperial economies are often based on imperial religions, that is, if with Caesar you play, to Caesar you must pay. The marks of the Beast on head and hand are simply mirror images of the name of Christ on the heads of his saints (Rev. 3:12), which denotes ownership and loyalty. As the latter are currently symbolic and spiritual, so are probably the former. Christians in Communist countries would understand this, as well as those in Islamic economies: loyalty to The Lamb comes with even an economic cost.
THE OLD TESTAMENT is an overlooked but key part of John’s Revelation. Much of Revelation’s imagery and language amounts to a reuse and updating of the OT prophets, especially Isaiah, Ezekiel, Amos and their language about “The Day of the Lord.” But so does the Pentateuch. The plagues and disasters of John’s Revelation bear much similarity to the plagues that afflicted Egypt before the Exodus. The Song of Moses (Rev. 15:3) hearkens back to the song that Moses taught the Hebrews on the other side of the Red Sea. The census numbers of the redeemed hearken back to the book of Numbers and the counts of those who escaped slavery in Egypt. Revelation therefore is an apocalyptic retelling of the Exodus story for the church coming out a world of idolatry, exploitation and imperialism in ways that Moses and the Hebrews would have understood.
A TALE OF TWO WOMEN: One of them is Babylon, or the the Great Harlot (Rev. 17), the other, the Bride of the Lamb (chs. 19-22). The former, in the original context, is Rome, but because of the constancy of human nature, can apply throughout the ages to empires, imperialism and the imperial habits of nations, societies and fallen human nature, even so-called “Christian empires,” or Christendom. The Bride is the church, or at least, the church that has remained faithful even through suffering. In Chapters 21-22. the church morphs into the City, the New Jerusalem, which is the reunion of heaven and earth.
A WORD ABOUT THE MILLENIUM (Rev. 20:1-6): Much ink has been spilled (and likely some blood) over how literally we take the 1,000 year reign, and whether that occurs before or after Christ returns and the promises of chapters 21 and 22 are fulfilled. Unfortunately, such debates distract us from the purpose of such promises and images, to keep on keeping on in Christ. One theory, called “pre-millenialism,” states that Christ returns in fullness, then there is a thousand year millenium, and one final end-times battle with Satan. This lends to a tendency to watch the sky, and the news headlines for events and signs of literal fulfillment to the apocalyptic images. Post-millenialism states that the saints will rule the earth for a thousand years before Christ returns at the end of the final, apocalyptic battle. This can lead to a tendency to seek and hold worldly power, as in “The Holy Roman Empire” or other forms of Christendom, thinking that such Christian kingdoms are setting the stage for Christ’s return. Amillenialism holds that there is no literal thousand-year reign after nor before Christ returns. Rather, the thousand years simply denote a long time, while “reigning” is what the saints already do by way of faith, love, patience in suffering, witness and good works. According to amillenialism, Christ is already ruling in and through his church, and by means of his church is extending his reign until all is ready for his enthronement before all eyes. The “thousand years” may be John’s way of balancing the sense of urgency (“Behold, I am coming soon”) with a call to patience, warning to be ready for death, persecution and a long slog.
A TALE OF TWO CITIES: Christians often present the gospel as “the way to go to heaven,” which is true enough while we await the fulfillment of John’s vision. But chapters 21-22 show us God’s end-game for our corner of Creation: that heaven comes to us, to earth, to reunite all that was separated in the Fall (God and people, creation and humanity), in Genesis 3. As in Genesis 3, we have a Tree of Life, rivers, a city that is also a garden, and face-to-face intimacy between God and people. In contrast, we have not just a garden, but a garden that is also a city. The gates to the City/Garden are not closed; no angel with a flaming sword guards them. As for the jewels that bedeck the walls and the streets of gold, we are to think back to Revelation 14: 13: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”“Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.” Now we know not only that the fruits of our labors of love will never be lost, nor in vain, but that they are contributing even now to the building of that city that shall reunite heaven and earth, people and creation. In the words of Paul (I Cor. 15:58): “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” Which is another way of stating John’s purpose in writing this Revelation, or Apocalypse.
IN WHAT WAYS IS JOHN’S REVELATION ABOUT THE PAST, OR ABOUT THE PRESENT? That is, aren’t we already citizens of a New Jerusalem? Aren’t John’s signs and symbols of cosmic reconciliation already taking place in our lives? One would hope. The prophetic/apocalyptic perspective is that redemption is here and coming, now and not yet.
PSALM 149 is a “Hallelujah!” psalm, beginning and ending with the Hebrew phrase, meaning, “Praise the Lord.” Part of the last section of the Psalter that sums the whole book up with worship and adoration, it also contains an apocalyptic element of judgment against the nations and their nobles. A close and careful reading does not call the church to rise up in arms (or political campaigns) but in worship and proclamation of the gospel, for the two-edged sword is elsewhere in the Bible described as The Word of God (Heb. 4:12). In worship and in teaching, proclamation and discernment, the church already reigns and proclaims judgment, as noted in the discussion of amillenialism above.
PSALM 150 brings the entire Psalter to a close where it began in Psalm 1: with a call to wisdom, which in this case is worship. The extravagant elements and expression of worship (trumpet, drums, choir, dancing) give us a glimpse into worship in ancient Israels’ temple and tabernacle. But not only are people enjoined to praise God, “let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” Not only do priests lead such worship in the temple, all of Eve’s children are priests, leading all of creation in worship, a charge whose fulfillment is underway now in our worship and discipleship, but which will be complete in the New Jerusalem, where the Lamb is our temple.
This concludes my two-year program of reading and commenting through the entire Bible (May 7, 2012).