Sunday, December 5
Revelation 10:1-11: Just as there was a double interrupting narrative immediately prior to the opening of the seventh seal, so a pair of visions will now precede the sounding of the seventh trumpet: the angel holding the little scroll and the two faithful witnesses.
In the first of these scenes, John is struck by the angel’s numinous character, at once bright and obscure. The angel’s body is clothed in a cloud, reminiscent of the cloud of the divine presence during ancient Israel’s desert journey and the cloud associated with the tabernacle of the divine presence. The face of the angel, on the other hand, has the luminosity of the sun. Nonetheless, the very fierceness of his countenance is tempered by the rainbow arching over his head, a reminder of the eternal covenant between God and creation in Genesis 9. The angel’s legs are pillars of fire, also reminiscent of the Exodus. His voice is like the roaring of a lion (verse 3), which is echoed by the seven thunders from Psalm 29 (Greek and Latin 28).
With one foot on the earth, one foot on the sea, and his hand into the air, the angel touches, as it were, all three aspects of physical creation: solid, liquid, and gas (verse 5). Moreover, all three of these components are mentioned in his oath (verse 6; Exodus 20:4,11), in which he swears that God’s secret purpose (to mysterion) in history will not be delayed of fulfillment.
The scroll that the angel holds is smaller than the scroll in Chapter 5, suggesting that its message may be less universal. Indeed, the message of that scroll is not directed to the world, but to the community of faith (verses 8-11). It is not read but eaten; John absorbs its message into himself. He assimilates the Word that he might then give expression to it. In this respect he imitates the prophet Ezekiel (2:9—3:4).
Monday, December 6
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. Ezekiel 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.
Tuesday, December 7
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. Therefore, 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).
Wednesday, December 8
Revelation 12:1-9: 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.
Thursday, December 9
Revelation 12:10-17: 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.
Friday, December 10
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.
Saturday, December 11
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.