Sunday, December 15
Revelation 19:1-10: The previous chapter spoke of the
destruction of Babylon, pictured as a woman dressed in scarlet. The present
chapter speaks of a contrasting woman, dressed in white, who is called the
Bride. A wedding is planned. There is no vision of the Bride just yet,
however, nor does John specifically identify her. He will see and describe
her in Chapter 21.
We begin the chapter with the "Alleluia." Although our own experience may
prompt us to associate that fine prayer with the sight and scent of lilies,
here in Revelation it resounds against the background of smoke rising from a
destroyed city. The worship scene portrayed here is related to victory over
the forces of hell. The word "avenge" at the end of verse 2 reminds us there
is a principle of vengeance built into the theological structure of history,
for the judgments of God are true and righteous. Sodom and Gomorrah come to
mind when we read of this smoke ascending for ever and ever. The worship
becomes so warm at verse 6 that Handel decided to set it to music.
By portraying the reign of God as a marriage feast, John brings together
three themes, all of them familiar to the Christians of his day: First, the
kingdom of God as a banquet, such as we find in Isaiah 25:6. Jesus
interpreted the banquet, however, as a marriage feast (Luke 14:15-16). John
stresses readiness for the feast (verse 7), much as we find in the parable
of the ten maidens at the beginning of Matthew 25.
Second, the marriage theme itself, as a symbol of the union of God with
man. We find this theme in the prophets (most notably Hosea, but also Isaiah
and Jeremiah) and the New Testament (Ephesians 5:32, for instance). The
Lamb, who is the groom here, has already been identified earlier in
Third, the theme of the garments, which now become the clothing required
for attendance at the feast. John has appealed to this imagery several times
already (3:4; 6:11; 7:14). The identification of the white garments with
righteous deeds puts one in mind of the parable in Matthew 22:11-13.
Monday, December 16
Revelation 19:11-21: The chapter continues on a
different theme, warfare. Jesus, pictured before as the Lamb, is here
portrayed as a warrior on a white charger. The emphasis is on His
vindication of justice, the motif with which the chapter began. He is called
"faithful and true," adjectives referring to Him in 3:14. These adjectives
should be considered especially in the context of martyrdom. That is to say,
when a person is about to die a terrible death for the name of Jesus,
"faithful and true" are the words he needs to know with respect to Jesus.
Like the martyrs, Jesus is here clothed in white. His eyes (verse 12) are
flames of fire, much as in John's inaugural vision (1:12-16). His garment
(verse 13) is spattered with blood, a detail we saw in 14:18-20. The
literary inspiration of this portrayal is the canticle in Isaiah 63:1-3.
One of the Christological titles found here is "king of kings and lord of
lords," a title going back to the ancient Assyrian emperors, who were kings
over other kings. John tells us that this title appears on the "thigh," of
the Rider on the white horse. The thigh here is the place of the scabbard,
where the sword hangs. It was common in antiquity to speak of the thigh as
the place of the sword. With regard to Achilles, for example, Homer wrote:
"And anger came on Peleus's son, and within his shaggy breast the heart was
divided two ways, pondering whether to draw from his thigh the sharp sword,
driving away all those who stood between and kill the son of Atreus, or else
to check his spleen within and keep down his anger" (Iliad 1.188-192). The
same idiom is found in the Odyssey 11.231 and the Aeneid 10.788. The exact
idiom is likewise biblical; "Gird your sword on your thigh, everyone of
you," commanded Moses to the Levites (Exodus 32:27). The expression occurs
twice in Judges 3 and in Psalms 45 (44):3. Finally, in the Song of Solomon
there is a description of the sixty valiant men around the king, "each with
his sword upon his thigh, against alarms by night" (3:8). The title on the
Warrior's thigh, then, is inscribed on His scabbard.
The sword itself, however, is described as coming forth from His mouth,
as in John's inaugural vision in the first chapter. This image, of course,
identifies the sword with the word, as in Hebrews 4:12 and Ephesians 6:17.
The image of God's word as a sword seems to have been very common among the
early Christians, so we are not surprised to see it here. The Rider Himself
is called "the Word of God," in the only instance of this expression with
reference to Jesus outside of the beginning of John's Gospel.
The summoning of the scavenger birds in verse 17 is reminiscent of
Ezechiel 39, which describes the defeat of the armies of Gog. We will say
more about this battle scene in Ezechiel in our discussion of Revelation 20.
Tuesday, December 17
Revelation 20:1-6: The most controversial part of this
passage is the "thousand years," to which several references are made. In
order to prepare ourselves to understand John here, it may be useful to
reflect on the literary image of the thousand years already well known to
John. In the Judaism of John's time there was the popular belief that the
Messiah would reign on the earth a thousand years (as there was, more
recently, in Hitler's fantasy of a "thousand-year Reich"). This popular
belief is extant in Jewish literature of the time, such as The Testament of
the Twelve Patriarchs and some sayings of famous rabbis. We also find a
variation on this theme in the Dead Sea scrolls, which speak of the just who
live a thousand generations.
John's scene of the Messiah reigning with His loyal followers for a
thousand years seems in large measure inspired by Daniel 7, in which God is
portrayed as a very old man, the "Ancient of Days," who would take the
authority from the fourth beast and give it to God's holy ones, those who
are suffering persecution for His sake (Daniel 7:9-10,22,26-27). The early
Christians were fond of this passage, because Jesus had identified Himself
as the Son of Man, who appears in this same scene in Daniel (7:13-14). We
note that Daniel 7 speaks of "thrones" in the plural, which Christians
understood to mean that they too would take part in the judgment of the
beast. In other words, they too would sit on thrones along with the Messiah
(Matthew 19:28). (Indeed, St. Paul would apply this idea to a practical
ethical question that arose in the early Church, in 1 Corinthians 6:1-3). To
say that the believes will judge does not mean, of course, that they will
judge in the same sense that God does, because only God has access to the
depths of the human heart. Nonetheless, there is a true and genuine sense in
which believers stand in judgment with Christ over history. In the Holy
Spirit they are given to know which elements of history are good, and which
bad; they are given to discern those components of history that are of value
in the sight of God, and those that are not. That is to say, the disciples
of Christ are forever passing true judgment over history. They are already
on their thrones with the Messiah. The final judgment, at history's end,
will simply reveal that they were, all along, the authentic judges of
This, then, is their thousand year reign. It is that area of Christian
experience in which Christians are already seated in the high places with
Christ, already on their thrones, already judges of history. They are said
to reign because they are not slaves to the beast and its image. Their
reign, nonetheless, is not yet complete, because they still have ahead of
them the battle with Gog and Magog.
Wednesday, December 18
Revelation 20:7-15: Gog was already well known to
readers of Ezechiel 38-39, who would scarcely have been surprised to hear of
him, for it was the name of a person from the somewhat recent past. The
Hebrew name Gog corresponds to the Assyrian Gugu and the Greek Gyges. He was
a famous seventh century king of Lydia in Asia Minor, who had died in 644.
Accounts of the original Gog are found in Assyrian annals and History of
Herodotus. The name is not especially important for the identification of
the invader; like all the other names in these chapters of Ezechiel, it is
symbolic of evil realities much larger and more menacing than their
historical references. Thus understood, Gog and his forces appear here in
Revelation 20. ("Magog," by the way, appears to be an abbreviation of the
Hebrew min-Gog, "from Gog." Here in Revelation he is a derived ally of Gog,
much as, elsewhere in the book, one beast shares his authority with the
other beast in 13:4.)
In verses 11-15 everything testifies to its own contamination by
"fleeing" from the throne of God. In Chapter 4 John had seen that throne as
the origin of all things, and now he sees it as the arbiter of history.
Everything flees before it. This is the final judgment, and it belongs to
God alone. Here we meet once again the image of the "Book of Life" that
appeared earlier in 3:5; 13:8; 17:8.
Thursday, December 19
Revelation 21:1-13: We now come to the final two
chapters of John's book of prophetic visions. Now we see no more battles, no
more bloodshed, no more persecution. John sees, rather, the holy city, New
Jerusalem, as the ultimate reality that gives meaning to all that preceded
In this final vision, which lasts two chapters, John is aware that seven
things are gone forever: the sea, death, grief, crying, pain, the curse, and
the night (21:1,4; 22:3,5). Here we are dealing with the definitive
abolition of conflict, the end of chaos. The first symbol of this chaos is
the sea, which has only such shape as it is given from outside of itself.
The sea represents the nothingness out of which God creates all things,
conferring meaning upon them. This chaos is both metaphysical and moral. It
represents a nothingness replaced by the lake of fire, the second death. The
sea is the hiding place of the monster and the setting where the scarlet
woman thrones. This sea disappears at the coming of the new heaven and the
If we take the earth to represent man's empirical and categorical
experience, and heaven to represent man's experience of transcendence, then
the appearance of the new heaven and the new earth means the transformation
of all of man's experience. All of it is made new. The grace of God in
Christ does not sanctify just a part of man's existence, but his whole
being. Man is not a partially redeemed creature. Both his heaven and his
earth are made new.
Both heaven and earth are part of God's final gift to man, the New
Jerusalem, the "dwelling of God with man." This dwelling, skene in Greek and
mishkan in Hebrew (both, if one looks closely, having the same triliteral
root, skn), was originally a tent made of "skins," as the same etymological
root is expressed in English. During the desert wandering after the Exodus,
this tent of skins was the abode of God's presence with His people. Indeed,
sometimes the word was simply the metaphor for the divine presence (verse
3). For instance, in Leviticus 26:11 we read, "I will set My mishkan among
you . . . . I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My
Friday, December 20
Revelation 21:14-27: All of history is symbolized in
two women, who are two cities. We have already considered the scarlet woman
who is Babylon/ Rome. The other woman is the Bride, the New Jerusalem, whose
proper place is heaven, but who also flees to the desert, where she does
battle with Satan (Chapter 12). Now that battle is over, however, and she
appears here in her glory. That other city was seated, as we saw, on seven
hills, but this New Jerusalem also sits on a very high mountain, which
everyone understood to be symbolized in Mount Zion (cf. Ezechiel 40:1-2).
John's vision of the gates on the city is reminiscent of Ezechiel 48.
John's vision here, especially verses 19-21, is also related to Ezechiel
28:12-15, where we find joined the themes of the mountain and the precious
stones, for this city is also the Garden of Eden, where those stones first
grew (cf. Genesis 2:10-12).
The symbolic number here is twelve, which we already considered in
Chapter 12, where it was the number of the stars around the head of the
heavenly woman. The identification of twelve stars with twelve stones is
obvious in our own custom of the birth stones to represent zodiacal signs.
The symbol is not only astrological, however, but also historical, because
it is the number of the patriarchs and apostles. Here, in fact, the twelve
gates bear the names of the twelve tribes, who are the seed of the twelve
patriarchs, while the twelve foundation stones of the city are identified as
the twelve apostles. We recall that the one hundred and forty-four thousand,
the number of the righteous, partly involves squaring of the number twelve.
In the present chapter John stresses that the plain geometry of the holy
city is square, as in Ezechiel 45 and 48. John goes beyond Ezechiel,
however, in viewing the New Jerusalem as a cube, as in the Holy of Holies of
Solomon's temple (1 Kings 6:20).
Saturday, December 21
Revelation 22:1-11: The biblical story begins and
ends in paradise. Thus, in John's vision of the river of paradise we
remember the four-branched river of paradise in Genesis 2. Both here and in
Ezechiel 47:1-12 there are monthly fruits growing on the banks of the river,
twelve in number obviously, and just as Adam's curse drove him out of
paradise, along with all his descendents, so the leaves of the paradisiacal
tree of life are for the healing of the nations.
The theme of the living waters is very much central to the Johannine corpus
(cf. John 4:7-15; 7:38; 19:34; 1 John 5:6-8).
Heaven, portrayed here as vision and worship with the angels (verses 8-9),
is for all those whose foreheads are sealed with the mark of the living God.
This sealing, of course, stands in contrast to the mark of beast. (It is
curious to note that, outside of the Book of Revelation [7:2-3; 9:3-4;
13:16-18; 14:1.9; 17:5; 20:4], the word "forehead" does not appear in the
New Testament.) The literary background of John's sealing is apparently
The urgency of John's message is indicated by the command that he not
seal it up for future generations. The Lord's coming, in fact, will be soon,
and it is imperative for John's readers to "get out" the message. John's
visions are not sealed, concealed, esoteric codes to be deciphered by future
generations. John clearly expects his own contemporaries to understand what
he is writing. These things "must shortly take place" (verse 6); it will all
happen "soon" (1:1,3). John is warning his contemporaries that a special
moment of judgment and grace is upon them and that they had better prepare
themselves for it, because it is later than they think.