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Exclusively published to the Touchstone website each week, these Daily Reflections are brief commentaries on the lectionary readings contained in the St. James Daily Devotional Guide. The reflections are penned by Patrick Henry Reardon, editor of the Daily Devotional Guide and a senior editor of Touchstone. Father Reardon provides here a very brief directional clue for one of the texts each day. Long-time readers of the Daily Devotional Guide will find these reflections an additional help to their reading of Holy Scripture which they can print and keep with their Guide.

The Daily Reflections will be updated weekly.

 



Sunday, December 1

Revelation 11:1-10: In our reading of the Book of
Revelation thus far we have encountered the Danielic expression, "a time,
times, and half a time" (Daniel 12:7). If we substitute the word "year" for
"time," the meaning is clear, "three and a half years," or forty-two months,
or (following the Hebrew calendar of thirty days per month) twelve-hundred
and sixty days. In the Book of Daniel this was the length of time during
which the Jerusalem temple was violated by Antiochus Epiphanes IV (Daniel
9:27). Similarly here in Revelation it is the symbolic length of time of
severe trial and the apparent triumph of evil (verses 2-3; 12:6; 13:5).
John?s contemporaries must also have been struck by the fact that the Roman
siege of Jerusalem also lasted three and a half years, from A.D. 67-70. In
the present chapter this length of time refers to the persecution of the
Christian Church, of which Jerusalem?s temple was a type and foreshadowing.
There is found within the Christian Church, however, an inner court, as it
were, a deep interior dimension that the forces of evil cannot trample. This
inviolability is what is meant by being sealed with the sign of the living
God. It asserts that believers are not to fear those who can kill the body
but can do no more, because there yet remains an inner court that is
off-limits to the invader and defiler. This is the inner court of which John
is told to take the measure (cf. Ezechiel 40:1-4; Zechariah 2:1-2), a
measuring that he will narrate later (21:15-17).
The literary background of John's vision of the two witnesses is
Zechariah 4:1-3,11-14, where the prophet was referring to the anointed ruler
Zerubbabel and the anointed priest Jeshua, the two men who preserved the
worship in God's house that they rebuilt between 520 and 516. Those two
figures represented royalty (for Zerubbabel was a descendent of David) and
priesthood (for Jeshua was a descendent of Aaron), which are two essential
aspects of the life in Christ (cf. Revelation 1:6; 5:10). "Two" witnesses
are required, of course, this being the minimum number required in order "to
make the case" (Deuteronomy 19:15). But the two witnesses in this chapter of
Revelation are the heirs, not only to Zerubbabel and Jeshua, but also to
Moses and Elijah. It was the first of these who inflicted Egypt with
plagues, and the second who closed up heaven for three and a half years (cf.
Luke 4:25; James 5:17). This is John's way of asserting that the Christian
Church, in her royal priesthood, continues also the prophetic war against
false gods. She will destroy God's enemies by fire (verse 5), as did Moses
(Numbers 16:35) and Elijah (2 Kings 1:9-12). When the monster from the abyss
kills these two servants of God (verse 7), the forces of evil seemed to have
triumphed (verse 10), but hey will be carried up to heaven, again like Moses
(Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.48) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11), because the
victorious Lamb has the final word.

Monday, December 2

Revelation 11:11-19: With respect to the prophets Moses
and Elijah, whose outlines appear in this vision as symbolic
representations, we know that the "return" of both men was expected by
John's contemporaries (cf. John 1:21; Mark 6:15; 8:20). Both men did
"return" at our Lord's transfiguration; indeed, in Mark 9 and Matthew 17,
the question of the return of Elijah is precisely the point of the
conversation that immediately follows the transfiguration.
When the two witnesses ascend into heaven (verse 12), one tenth of the city
falls (verse 13), the city in question still being "Sodom and Egypt, where
also our Lord was crucified" (verse 8). This one tenth of the city,
calculated as seven thousand souls, is literally a tithe of the city's
population. Thus, the number of those who perish is a sort of direct
reversal of the seven thousand who were saved in Elijah's remnant (1 Kings
19:18). Thus ends the second woe, which is the sixth trumpet (verse 14).
Those first six trumpets were warning blasts, whereas the seventh will be a
kind of fanfare (verse 15).
In the hymn that follows the seventh trumpet (verses 17-18), we should
especially observe that God's wrath is salvific, a matter at which believers
will rejoice, because God's reign is established by His wrath. God is not a
neutral observer of history. On the contrary, He is deeply biased on the
side of the poor and oppressed. Some people in this world are poor and
oppressed, because other people in this world worship false gods. In the
biblical view, poverty and oppression are the results of idolatry, and this
provokes God's wrath. His wrath is against the false gods and their
servants, and believers are summoned to rejoice in the victory of that
wrath, because it is the victory of freedom over slavery, justice over
injustice, and Moses over Pharaoh. The wrath of God is the last thing in the
world that Christians should be afraid of, for the wrath of God is on their
side (Matthew 23:35-36).
As in the ancient procession around Jericho, the Ark of the Covenant appears
after the seventh trumpet (verse 19).

Tuesday, December 3

Revelation 12:1-17: Although it is surely no myth, this
awesome vision bears a more than slight resemblance to certain themes in
ancient mythology. For example, there was the very primitive solar myth
concerning the powers of darkness, which appear to triumph over the sun and
to reign over the time of night, defying the promised sun. This darkness,
which has usurped the reign of the sun, as it were, attempts to devour the
sun in its very birth; to kill the sun, that is to say, as it emerges from
its mother's womb. In at least two versions of this ancient myth, in fact,
the darkness is portrayed as a dragon-like snake. Thus, Egypt had its myth
of the dragon Set, who pursued Isis while she carried the sun god Horus in
her womb. His plan was to devour Horus at his birth. It is further curious
that Isis, like the Woman in Revelation 12 (verse 14), is portrayed in
Egyptian art (an elaborate door in the King Tut collection, for instance)
with wings, so that she could flee from Set. Similarly, Greek mythology
described the dragon-snake Python as pursuing the goddess Leto, who is
pregnant with the sun god Apollo. In both cases, the little child escapes
and later returns to destroy the usurping serpent. The similarities of both
of these myths to the vision in Revelation 12 is rather striking. Both myths
also touch on the subject of the illegitimate "usurper," a theme that
Matthew develops in his story of Herod seeking to destroy the true King,
Jesus, at His very birth.
John's vision takes place in the vault of heaven, where the Woman is
described as a "sign," an image reminiscent of Isaiah 7:10-11. Indeed, John
seems to be saying that in the birth of Jesus Isaiah's prophecy of virgin
birth is fulfilled (cf. also Isaiah 26:17). Like Christ Himself (Revelation
1:16), this Woman is clothed with the sun. All Christians know the virginity
of the mother of Jesus. Is this Woman being represented, therefore, as the
zodiacal sign of Virgo? It would seem so, because, like sign for Virgo,
there are twelve stars involved. In the southern hemisphere the six stars
crowning Virgo are sigma, chi, iota, pi, nu, and beta. In the northern
hemisphere they are theta, star 60, delta, star 93, second magnitude beta,
and omicron.
Nonetheless, this is not simply a description of Christmas. The Woman in
the vision is the mother of Jesus, but she is more; she is also the Church,
which gives birth to Christ in the world. The sufferings and persecution of
the Church are described as birth pangs (cf. John 16:21-22).
The serpent, of course, is that ancient dragon who is the enemy of our
race, the one who seduced the first woman in the garden. Now he must face
the new Woman, who is more than a match for him. His seven heads put one in
mind of the ancient mythological dragon Hydra, well known from a Canaanite
narrative found in the excavations at Ras Shamra and from the traditional
story of the Labors of Hercules. In Revelation it is clearly Satan, the
Accuser (verse 10) from the Book of Job and from Zechariah 3.
Michael appears right out of Daniel, of course; in the New Testament he
spoken of only here and in the Epistle of Jude.

Wednesday, December 4

Revelation 13:1-10: Up till now we have seen two
beasts, one of them from the underworld (Chapter 11) and the other from the
heavens (Chapters 12). Two more beasts will appear in the present chapter,
one of them from the sea (verse 1), who also has seven heads and ten horns
(cf. 12:3), and one from the land (verse 11).
The present reading is concerned solely with the first of these two latter
beasts. Like the beast in Daniel 7, he is a composite of several menacing
things (verse 2). He derives his "authority" from the Dragon (verses 2,4)
whom we considered in Chapter 12. That is to say, this beast shares in the
power of Satan. With respect to his ten horns, two remarks are in order:
First, in Daniel 7, the obvious literary background here, the ten horns seem
to refer to the ten Seleucid successors of Alexander the Great. Second, here
in Revelation 13 they seem to refer to Roman emperors. If we leave out Otho,
who reigned over the Roman Empire for only three months, there were, in
fact, exactly ten Roman emperors up to Domition, who was responsible for the
persecution of A.D. 95: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba,
Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Dominion. Almost all of these men were
recognized as divine, some of them even before their deaths. Words such as
theos and divus appear on their coins. This figure, therefore, symbolizes
the idolatrous pretensions of the Roman Empire, which John ascribes to
Satan. Those pretensions claim an unquestioned and absolute allegiance over
the human spirit.
This beast of the Roman Empire combines all the worst features of all the
earlier empires: Daniel's winged lion of Babylon, the bear of the Medes, the
Persian leopard, and the ten-horror of the Greeks. One may note that John
lists these components in the reverse order of Daniel.
Far more than ourselves, the early Christians were aware of the power of
evil in the world. They spoke of it frequently in personified forms that are
difficult to interpret literally. And the Christians described their
relationship to this evil as one of warfare. The terms of the conflict
described here in Revelation 13 may be compared to the description in 2
Thessalonians 2:3-12. In each case there is a widespread deception of
people, their enslavement and destruction by means of lies. In both of these
texts a pronounced contrast is drawn between the worldlings, who are
deceived and will perish, and the faithful who will be saved by reason of
their fidelity to Jesus.

Thursday, December 5

Revelation 13:11-18: Now we come to the beast arising
out of the earth, a parody of Christ in the sense that he faintly resembles
a lamb (verse 11). Performing great signs and bringing fire down from heaven
(verse 13), he is also a parody of the two witnesses in Chapter 11; in this
respect he resembles the magicians of Egypt. The Gospels, we recall, have
several warnings against false christs and false prophets, who will work
wonders. Furthermore, in a parody of the sign of the living God in Chapter
7, he has his own version of the seal (verse 16). Those without the mark of
the beast must suffer economic sanctions (verse 17). Political idolatry, in
other words, has an important mercantile dimension, to which the Book of
Revelation will return in later chapters. The adoration of the statue (verse
15), of course, is reminiscent of the fiery furnace story in Daniel.
Perhaps the easiest part of this text is to discern the meaning of the
number of the beast. Indeed, John tells us that anyone with intelligence can
do it (verse 18). For all that, the symbolism of the number is complex. A
first mistake in attempting to read this number is that of imagining it as
written out in Arabic numerals. This procedure should be dismissed
immediately, because our modern numeral system, derived from the Arabs, was
unknown to the writers of the Bible. In contrast, the numeral systems
employed in the Bible are based entirely on the alphabet, whether Hebrew or
Greek. Because of this, numbers could also stand for words, and a number of
codes became possible. One of these, known as gematria, consisted in taking
the prescribed numerical value of the various letters (aleph meaning one,
beth meaning two, and so forth) in a name and then working little puzzles
with them. There are several examples of this in Jewish works, such as the
Talmud, and in early Christian writings, such as The Letter of
Pseudo-Barnabas. There are also two examples of it in the Sibylline Oracles
and two more in the graffiti in the excavations of Pompey.
In John's case, his puzzle runs backwards. He gives us a number and
expects us to figure out what word or name the number stands for. Obviously
there are many possible combinations of letters that will add up to the
value of six hundred and sixty-six. Interpreters of the Sacred Text,
however, have been most partial to the Hebrew form of the name, "Nero
Caesar," which does, in fact, add up to exactly the number six hundred and
sixty-six. There are other possibilities, but this explanation seems the
most compelling. The number was thus a reference to Nero, the first Roman
emperor who ever undertook the persecution of the Christian Church.

Friday, December 6

Revelation 14:1-13: Now we come again to the sealing of
the followers of Christ, first spoken of in Chapter 7. With respect to the
"following" of the Lamb (verse 4), of course, the image is found also in the
Gospels. When Jesus calls on His disciples to "follow" Him, the context is
the Cross. The Lamb to be followed is the Lamb of sacrifice (Mark 8:34-38;
John 21:18-19).
There are three angels in this text, representing three dimensions of the
final age, the proclamation of the Gospel, the judgment of God on the city
of man, and the eternal, wrathful exclusion of idolatry. First, the angel of
the everlasting Gospel (verse 6), whose mandate, like the mandate at the end
of Matthew, is directed to all nations. These are all called to repentance
and turning to the true God (verse 7; cf. Acts 14:15). Remember that in
John's view, the judgment of God is now. The judgment of God takes place in
the very proclamation of the Good News (cf. John 3:19; 18:37). The Gospel
here is called eternal; it is the proclamation of the eternal mind of God,
His eternal purpose of salvation, the "Mystery" of which the Epistle to the
Ephesians speaks.
Second, the angel who proclaims the fall of Babylon (verse 8). This, too,
pertains to the Gospel. In biblical thought, the fall of Babylon means that
the true Israelites can now go home, because the exile is over. Babylon is
whatever enslaves and alienates the people of God. Babylon is the city of
false gods, the city that dares to raise up its tower against the face of
God; it is the monument to man's achievements without God. Babylon is the
city where men do not understand one another, because each man, as it were,
speaks his own private meaning. The downfall of this city certainly is Good
News, which is the meaning of the word Gospel. Christians are called to
leave Babylon (18:4).
Third, the angel proclaiming the eschatological outpouring of God?s
wrath, to the exclusion of all idolatry (verses 9-11). This text is
important because, like certain sayings of our Lord in the Gospels, it
insists on the eternity of damnation. Unlike many modern men, the Bible
believes that the definitive choice of evil lasts forever.

Saturday, November 7

Revelation 14:14-20: On the image of harvest as
judgment, see Joel 4:13-14 (3:9-14). The Son of Man on the cloud is, of
course, from the Book of Daniel, an image that Jesus interprets of Himself
in each of the Synoptic Gospels.
Unlike ourselves, men in antiquity actually experienced harvesting with a
sickle and treading grapes in a vat, both actions characterized by a
distinct measure of violence. Even these relatively benign images of harvest
season, therefore, strongly suggest that the "end of time" will be more than
slightly daunting. It should not surprise us that the harvesting with a
sickle and the trampling of a wine vat because associated with the feeling
of God's definitive wrath.
The association of anger with the treading of the grapes was hardly new
(cf. Isaiah 63:1-6), and it will appear again (Revelation 19:13-15). The
grape harvest arrives in September, as the seasonal period of growth comes
to an end. It is natural to think of death at this time of the year. The
amount of blood in this text (verse 20) is rather dramatic. The Greek
stadion being six hundred and seven feet, sixteen stadia is about two
hundred miles. A horse's bridle is about five feet off the ground. Thus we
are dealing with a great deal of blood. This must be one of the most
unpleasant passages in the New Testament.
The rising pool of blood becomes a kind of Red Sea. Indeed, the following
chapter will be full of imagery from the Book of Exodus: plagues, the cloud
of the divine presence, the tent of testimony, Moses, the crossing of the
Red Sea, and the destruction of the pursuers.




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