Rev 1:1-3, Daniel 2-4, Exodus 23-4.
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to His servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending His angel to His servant John, who bore witness to the Word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.
I began my podcast and blog duo, A Lamp for Today, 5 years ago, and have gone through several years of examining gospel, epistle, and the major cycle of hymns for Sunday and feast-day worship. I thought it might be helpful to some if I changed gears slightly and allowed the lamp of the OT to shine, for some time, upon that book which I love, and which is intended to be a “revelation,” but which some today find obscure—the Apocalypse of Jesus to John, also known as the Book of Revelation.
This week we will examine the first three verses, which resound with echoes from the Old Testament. Even the book’s first phrase, which serves as a title, has a background: the main Greek word here is “apocalypse,” translated into the Latin as “revelation,” and so we receive two different ways of referring to the book. Literally, both the Greek and Latin mean “the removal of a veil,” or “unveiling,” and so we see that the book is supposed to make clear things that previously had been mysterious. The noun apokalypsis is not found anywhere in the Greek version of the Old Testaments, but the related verb apokalyptō, is—among these instances, several times in the book of Daniel, which shows Daniel in the first half as God’s servant who can reveal mysteries, and which actually takes the form of an apocalypse, a series of visions, in the second half. The verb is also found in other parts of the Old Testament, especially where God declares or interprets or unveils mysteries to his prophets and his people. Daniel, to whom God has unveiled mysteries in a vision, has this to say about God when he blesses Him: “God reveals (“unveils”) deep and hidden things; He knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him” (Daniel 2:21). A few verses later, he explains to the pagan king how this revelation works, claiming that it comes from God, and not from any special gift of Daniel: “There is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries…. This mystery has been revealed to me, not because of any wisdom that I have more than all the living, but in order that the interpretation may be made known to the king, and that you may know the thoughts of your mind.”
Daniel has, of course, been asked by the king to interpret the king’s disturbing dreams, because none of the pagan wise men can do so. But the dreams that he comes to understand through God’s light are intended to not only inform the king, but to REFORM him—that he might know the thoughts of his own mind, and lift up his heart to God. Anything unveiled in the Bible is not done so simply to satisfy curiosity, but to change the one who sees what God permits that one to see. So then, Greek-speaking people who read the first verse of our book of Revelation in the first century, and who knew their Bibles, would have understood what was meant by this “unveiling,” even though the noun apokalypsis hadn’t yet been used to describe a specific kind of literature. In the Jewish and Christian world, an “unveiling” was given for a purpose, not just so that the seer could vaunt himself or herself over others who did not have such visions or such understanding. An “apocalypse” was a means by which God showed His glory, showed His work in the world, showed His will for people, showed the truth—and all of this meant to heal and to illumine those who are told these mysteries.
So, too, with our Apocalypse of JESUS to John, as the full title runs. (It is not the Apocalypse of John). When Jesus gives this gift, it is to “show His servants” what they need to know in order to glorify Him in their lives. It is His apocalypse, it is the insight of Jesus Himself regarding the hidden things of God. But, we can read the title another way “The Apocalypse of Jesus” could also imply that this is a revelation ABOUT our Lord. That is, when we read it, we should be expecting to meet the Lord Jesus at every corner, not to be given secret “dope” about which we can feel superior, because WE know esoteric things that other people do not.
Both these ways of reading the title—the Apocalypse that belongs to Jesus, the Apocalypse about Jesus—block off any sense of superiority to those who study this book. They also set the book in the right context so that we will be looking for what God wants us to know, and not be searching for things that will titillate, or excite our passions. The Old Testament contains warnings about those who search out mystery for the sake of being in control of their own destiny, or for the mere sake of curiosity. The most famous is that sad story of Saul in 1 Samuel 29. Saul is about to go to battle against the Philistines but cannot get “a word of the LORD” in the ways of the past, because God has actually decided that he is unfit for the monarchy, and will soon install David. Saul calls upon a witch, even though he has banished all sorcery and fortune-telling from the land, and asks her to bring up the dead prophet Samuel. His frantic and ungodly actions result in this apparition declaring a word of judgment against him: “the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David.” He cannot manage his own affairs by seeking out mysteries which God will not illumine for him. He is not to use visions and mediums for his own purposes.
We can see a contrast when we return to the story of Daniel and King Nebuchudnezzar. Daniel turns to the Lord, asking for mercy, receiving an interpretation of the dream that had been bothering the King, and he reveals it to Him, making it clear that this knowledge comes from God, and not from his own wisdom. The pagan king, of course, is a hard case, and does not, for some time, come to realize that God alone is all-powerful. It takes several more episodes, –the matter of the fiery furnace, and then an exile as a man stripped bare, like a beast—for him to declare the glory of God. Finally, though, he says, “for His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom endures from generation to generation…. for all His works are right and His ways are just; and those who walk in pride He is able to humble” (Dan 4:34, 37). The book of Daniel, then, shows how it is possible for a pagan king to be transformed by the unveiling of God’s visions, so long as that person doesn’t attempt to use God’s mysteries for his own proud purposes, but allows them to humble and change him.
How sad it is that this wonderful book, which unfurls God’s mysteries to us, has been used for godless and empty purposes, as folks work out from it complicated time-schemes and one-to-one correspondences with various contemporary events, as though that was what the book were all about. Jesus, we must remember, told us that even the Son of Man did not know the time of the end! Did God change His mind, and then send the visions to John so that we would know more than Jesus? No, the very title of his book reminds us that these mysteries are not revealed to arrogant and self-important individuals! This is the Apocalypse of Jesus and about Jesus that is revealed to a man called “John.” How humbly he mentions his name, not claiming apostleship or prophetic ability, or leadership in his own right, but simply saying that the revelation was given so that God’s people could know what they need to know. He is the last in a chain, for Jesus has given the visions to an angel, who has given it to John. And his only purpose is to witness to “the LOGOS of God” and to the “testimony” or “martyrdom” of Jesus. Later in this chapter, he will speak of all the things that Christians hold together in common with him – “tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus” (1:9). John does not, then, vaunt his own authority. So humble is his demeanor—for he has been awe-struck by holy things—that readers of this book have debated since the earliest time of the Church which John is meant. The apostle? So say some. The elder who followed that apostle? So say others. Some unknown John—perhaps, but not likely. What we do know about him is that he was in exile because of his loyalty to Jesus! Like John the Baptist, he is a voice crying out to all who hear so that they will see, and honor the Lord. He calls no attention to himself, nor to his identity, but to the One around whom this unveiling centers. By passing on these visions, he seeks no special honor, but opens our ears to the One who is the Word of God, and fastens our eyes on the One who gave the perfect witness, the perfect testimony, to God’s love by His martyrdom on the cross.
We end with the third verse of this first section, “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it.” This verse re-echoes so many passages in the OT that we cannot recount them all. Let’s stick with the early picture of Moses instructing the people at Sinai, in which he tells them that if they remain loyal to God, he will bless them. After he and the elders have had an intimate experience with God, he comes down from Sinai, and enacts the covenant with the people by means of blood. In the midst of these actions, “He took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Ex 24:7). Of course, we know they weren’t. And we also know, because we are part of John’s extended community of faith, that the blood of animals shed to seal the old covenant was nothing in comparison to the witness and death of Jesus. But the passage from Exodus reminds us of how important it is for the Book of God to be read in the community, for it to be heard, and for those who hear it to keep it. This in itself is a blessing—to be one of God’s own people, hearing Him, and learning how to live in His ways. We know this even more profoundly than the people of Israel, for we do not meet God at the bottom of a smoking mountain, but rather as we meet together, we join the angels in praise, and we receive Him even into our bodies at the Eucharist. We may be startled by John’s final words, “for the time is near.” This final clause reminds us of the promise that John will show “what will soon take place”, in the first verse. What did he mean by this “soon” and “near?” Surely everything that John showed in his vision has not happened, and it is now almost 20 centuries later! But to think that would be to make the mistake that the vision is all about the end of time. No, we shall see as we go through the book that it is also about our time: it is about our call to witness to God in hostile times, about the way that the world will scorn and maybe even persecute us, about how various things will make people’s hearts hard, so that they need our prayers. The book of Revelation is not about the distant future, but it is timely in every age, for God has, as King Nebuchanezzar even glimpsed, an everlasting Kingdom—a Kingdom that we know has been inaugurated in the Lord Jesus. And the book of Revelation is also about the present blessing, about the presence of the Holy Spirit with us, about the wonder that we, when we worship, are caught up into the great eternal Liturgy around the throne. John’s words “the time is near” are indeed mirrored by the deacon when he speaks to the priest at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, “It is time—kairos—for the Lord to act.” That time is near to us every time we meet. The blessing is upon us as we hear the gospel, and respond by offering God our lives. The blessing, in fact, is that He gives us Himself, and not just mysterious information. The veil is lifted, once and for all, as the Royal Doors open remind us, because Christ is among us, and ever shall be.