December 23 – December 30

Friday, December 23

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 Revelation.

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.

Saturday, December 24

Matthew 1:18-25: In today’s reading Joseph receives two commands that affect his legal relationship to Jesus: “Take to you Mary your wife” and “You shall call His name Jesus.” In fulfilling these commands, Joseph establishes the legal relationship of King David to Jesus. It is for this reason that Joseph is here addressed as “Joseph, son of David”; this is the only instance in the New Testament where “son of David” refers to someone besides Jesus. Two other features of this text should be noted: First, the name Emmanuel, which is translated as “God with us,” ties this passage to the very last verse of the Gospel of Matthew, the Lord’s promise to be with us always. Second, the expression “that it might be fulfilled,” which here appears for the first of the eleven times that it is found in Matthew—more than in all of the other three Gospels combined.

Hebrews 1:1-14: Today's Gospel from Matthew calls Jesus "Emmanuel," which means "God with us," and in the very last verse of that gospel Jesus promises to be with us all days, even to the end of the world. The mystery of the Incarnation implies that God is permanently with us.

The permanence of what God has wrought in Christ is a major thesis of this first chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, which stresses the theme in a series of contrasts.

First, the permanence, the ultimacy, the absolute finality of God's revelation in Jesus is contrasted with the previous and partial revelation of God in the ancient prophets. In times past, says the Sacred Text, God spoke in fragmentary and varied ways, but in these last of days He has spoken to us by a Son.

Second, the permanence of Jesus is contrasted with those mutable, those come-and-go revelations of God in His angels. In verse 7 the angels are called "winds" and "flames of fire," but the next verse addresses the Son like this: "Your throne, O God, stands forever and ever."

Third, the permanence of Jesus is contrasted with the heavens themselves and the earth on which we stand: "They will perish . . . You will roll them up like a cloak, like a garment they will be changed." But speaking to Christ, the author contrasts such fugacity with the eternal stability of God's Son: "You remain . . . You are the same, and Your years will have no end." Later on, this same epistle will speak of "Jesus Christ, yesterday, today, and forever."

Sunday, December 25

Christmas Day: A process of humanization is what the Word assumed when he was made flesh and dwelt among us. The doctrine of the Incarnation does not mean the assumption of an unchangeable human state—on the contrary, God’s Son came to change that state!—but of a full human life. Irenaeus of Lyons, in the second century, gave voice to this truth about Jesus: Gloria Dei est vivens homo—“The glory of God is a living man.” The Word did not assume our humanity in abstract and philosophical terms. Rather, the Word became a specific human being, Jesus Christ, a true man and the sole Mediator between God and man.

That is to say, God’s eternal Word took unto himself, not only certain human qualities, but the concrete, historical circumstances of an individual human life. He made himself a subjective participant in human history, someone whose existence and experience were circumscribed by the limiting conditions of time and space and organic particularity.

An adequate Christology, then, should affirm that the Word's becoming flesh refers to more than the single instant of his becoming present in the Virgin's womb. He continued becoming flesh and dwelling among us, in the sense that his assumed body and soul developed and grew through the complex experiences of a particular human life, including the transition from pre-conscious to conscious.

During the entire period the Epistle to the Hebrews calls "the days of His flesh," he continued to become flesh and dwell among us. In fact, we must go further and say that through the experience of his passion and death he "learned obedience by the things that he suffered." At every moment, even as he passed into the realm of the dead and rose again, he was becoming flesh and dwelling among us. No human being has ever gone where God's Word, becoming flesh, was reluctant to go. Living a human life—we Christians are convinced—Jesus addressed every human life in all its aspects, offering solace to every sorrow, extending redemption to every hope.

Monday, December 26

Acts 6:8—8:3: In Luke’s description of Stephen’s martyrdom, several features are worthy of remark.

First, like the Savior (John 20:19; Hebrews 13:12), Stephen is executed outside the city wall (Acts 7:58), because even in this massive miscarriage of basic justice, Stephen’s murderers adhere to the Mosaic prescription (Leviticus 24:14; Numbers 15:35–36). This is ironic, because in Lukan theology this exit from Jerusalem, for the murder of Stephen, symbolizes that outward movement of the witness from Jerusalem that is so strong a theme in the Book of Acts (1:8).

Second, and also as a feature of considerable irony, it is in this scene that St. Paul is first introduced in the Acts of the Apostles (7:58). This introduction of the Apostle to the Gentiles, at exactly this point in the narrative of Acts, is of a piece with the theological significance of Stephen’s dying outside of the walls. Later on, praying in a state of trance, Paul will say to Jesus, “And when the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by consenting to his death, and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him” (22:20).

Third, there is a powerful emphasis on the Holy Spirit. It was early said that Stephen was “full of the Holy Spirit” (6:3, 5), but the statement is repeated once again in the context of his death (7:55). This emphasis, which relates Stephen’s death to the pentecostal outpouring, reflects the conviction of the early Church that martyrdom is the supreme charism of the Christian life, the final and crowning gift of the Holy Spirit that definitively seals and consecrates the testimony, the martyria, of the Church and the believer. We meet this conviction somewhat later in The Martyrdom of Polycarp and in the earliest treatises on martyrdom by the Christian apologists.

Fourth, there is a dramatic change in Stephen’s tone. Having bitterly denounced the Jews in his testimony before the Sanhedrin (7:51–53), Stephen finishes his life by committing his soul to the Lord and devoutly praying for his persecutors (7:59–60). Luke thus takes great care to observe the similarities between the deaths of Jesus and Stephen (Luke 23:34, 46).

Tuesday, December 27

John 1:1-14: In this text, there is a long-standing disposition to understand verses 3 and 4 as distinct units. Thus, the New King James Version reads, “All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.” Accordingly, verse 4 in the KJV follows as: “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.”

This is an unlikely punctuation, however, perhaps caused by a copyist’s error. The Papyrus Bodmer II, from about A.D. 200, makes the last word of verse 3 to be ouden [“nothing”]. A copyist’s change to oude hen [“not one thing”] may have been the original source of the problem, causing these last two words to be added to the next sentence (verse 4). When verse numbers were later added to the Sacred Text, verse 3 absorbed the first two words of verse 4: ho gegonen, “what came to be.”

Christians of the first four centuries, however—and still in the fifth century with Saint Augustine—punctuated verses 3-4 to read: “All things came to be through Him, and without Him nothing came to be. What came to be in Him was life, and the life was the light of men.” This seems also to have been the original punctuation and sense of the Latin Vulgate. This is certainly the preferable punctuation.

Interpreted in this way, verse 4 means that every created thing came to be in the life of God’s Word. It is the living Word that confers being on all created things. Augustine comments: Facta est terra, sed ipsa terra quae facta est non est vita; est autem in ipsa sapiential spiritaliter ration qua facta est; haec vita est–“The earth was made, but the earth itself, which was made, is not life. Wisdom is spiritually in it, however, a certain Reason. This is life” (Tractatus in Joannem 1.16).

That light shone in the darkness, says verse 5, but “the darkness did not grasp it.” This verb should probably be understood in the sense of “understand,” as when Jesus tells Nicodemus, “the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light“ (3:19).

With verses 6-8 we shift from eternity and Creation to history, and specifically to the historical appearance of John the Baptist. John’s emergence on the historical scene was the starting point of the narrative contained in the witness of the Apostles (cf. Acts 1:22; 10:37; 13:24). Luke was especially careful to place John’s appearance in a full historical context (Luke 4:1-2).

Once again, the form and tense of the verb changes to the aorist of gignomi, “to become.” Literally, verse 5 reads, “A man came to be whose name was John.” We note this wording in order to compare this verse to the references to Creation in the opening verses. A more felicitous English idiom would say, “There appeared a man named John.”

John comes in order to bear witness, as he will start to do in verse 19. His is the first of many “witnesses” of which the Fourth Gospel speaks: the woman of Samaria (4:39), the works of Jesus (5:36), the Scriptures (5:39), the crowds (12:17), the Holy Spirit and the disciples (15:26-27), the writer himself (21:24), and especially the Father (5:37). Here, then, John introduces a major motif of this gospel.

Wednesday, December 28

Revelation 19:11-21: The chapter continues on a different theme: warfare (verses 11-21). Jesus, pictured before as the Lamb, is here portrayed as a warrior on a white destrier. The emphasis here 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 in the Aeneid 10.788. The exact idiom is likewise biblical; “Gird your sword on your thigh, every one 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 Ezekiel 39, which describes the defeat of the armies of Gog. We will say more about this battle scene in Ezekiel in our discussion of Revelation 20.

Thursday, December 29

Revelation 20:1-15: 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 believers 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.

Nevertheless, 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 history.

This, then, is their thousand years’ 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.

Gog (verses 7-15) was already well known to readers of Ezekiel 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(or Gug) 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 Ezekiel, 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; and 17:8.

Friday, December 30

Revelation 21:1-27: 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 it.

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 sits. This sea disappears at the coming of the new heaven and the new earth.

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 people.”

All of history is symbolized in two women, who are two cities (verses14-27). 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 all John’s first readers understood to be symbolized in Mount Zion (cf. Ezekiel 40:1-2). John’s vision of the gates on the city is reminiscent of Ezekiel 48.

John’s vision here, especially in verses 19-21, is also related to Ezekiel 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 have 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 using birthstones to represent zodiacal signs. The symbol is not only astrological, however, but also historical, because it is the number of the patriarchs and the 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 the squaring of the number twelve. In the present chapter John stresses that the plane geometry of the holy city is square, as in Ezekiel 45 and 48. John goes beyond Ezekiel, however, in viewing the New Jerusalem as a cube, as in the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:20).