Lighting Up the Apocalypse 2

Rev 1:4-8; Isaiah 11; Daniel 7:13-27; Zechariah 12-13

This week we tackle Rev 1:4-8, in which John makes his first address to those reading the account of his vision. Here is the passage:

John to the seven churches that are in Asia:

Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before His throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.

To Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood and made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, everyone who pierced Him; and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of Him. Even so. Amen.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

We have already heard John, the writer, named briefly as “the servant” of Christ, who, through John, will give God’s message to John’s fellow servants. It bears remembering that the word doulos (servant) used by John can even be translated accurately as “slave.” Some of the connotations of that word do not fit our condition, for God aims to make us His friends, and gives to us liberty; but in the sense that the word accentuates the distinction between our Almighty creator and us, and puts the emphasis upon obedience, it is apt. John does not claim here any special privilege or honor, calling himself neither prophet nor apostle—he is a “slave” of Christ, among others, and has a witness to give for the sake of his brothers and sisters.  The authorship of the Apocalypse is a fraught question, and has been debated from earliest years—is this the apostle John, the elder John who bears the same name, or some other visionary whom the seven churches knew personally, but who remains mysterious to us?  I am in the midst of reading the recent book on John’s Gospel by Fr. John Behr, who judges that the case for the elder is quite compelling.  I will not try to solve the mystery of authorship in this series, but will make two points: first, the book is in the canon (though it was accepted late in the East), and so it consonant with and connected to apostolic teaching; secondly, the “John” here is content to let his message speak for itself, and not to claim personal authority. Practically speaking, that’s enough. What matters in reading the book is for us to see, through John’s eyes, what he saw, and to hear what he heard—and to worship!

Well, in using “us,” I am assuming that we are his intended readers.  But he addresses seven specific churches in Asia.  As with the letters of St. Paul, it is helpful to remember that the Apocalypse had an original first century audience—so knowing something about it will help us in interpretation.  On the other hand, the number “seven” is significant, for it speaks of totality, wholeness, and perfection, in the Biblical literature.  While these words were for a specific audience, they also are for the “whole” of the Church, then.  We, just like the members of the Asian churches, are servants of God, and brothers and sisters of John, the messenger.  As with other Christian letters of the time, especially those of St Paul, John addresses us with a two-fold greeting: “Grace” and “Peace.”  We are so used to these words that we do not immediately grasp how revolutionary they are.  Peace (Shalom!) was, and remains, a typical Jewish greeting.  But St. Paul and John translate it into Greek, and pair it with another word, “Charis,” which means “Grace.”  That word is actually a modification of the usual Gentile greeting of the time, which was “Charein!”, that is, “Have grace!”  Christians took the Gentile greeting, made it into the noun “Grace,” and put it alongside the Hebrew “Peace!” as a double greeting that addressed everyone, whether Jewish or Gentile in ethnicity. The greeting is wonderfully ambiguous, because it can be seen as either an indication of our character—people who possess grace and peace—or a prayer for our well- being “God’s grace and peace be to you!”  Both things are true—we both are called into His love, and need more of it every day.

This salutation turns the greeting of the churches into something said by God himself, and not only by John: “Grace and peace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come.”  Here is the God who is not exactly timeless, but timeful, who has been with His people in the past, is with them now, and will be with them. We are brought back in our imaginations to the time of Moses, who asked God his name, and was told “I Am Who I Am,” “I Am the existing one,” “Ho Ōn,” as we see in the halo around Christ Himself on our icons. This is how God introduces Himself to begin with, and we will hear similar words in the last verse of our section, verse 8, as John describes the One “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”  Our passage, then, is surrounded with wonder, just as Moses was surrounded with mystery.  We are on holy ground.

But the divine Speaker is not finished.  He is the great I AM, but also sends blessings from “the seven spirits” around the throne, and from “the Lord Jesus, the faithful witness” (or “martyr”). Those up on their angelic lore know that there are seven archangels, only a few of whom are named in our Biblical books—Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Salaphael, Raguel, and Barachiel.

Some have thought, then, that this verse is similar to 1 Tim 5:21, which exhorts Timothy before God, Christ, and the holy angels.  But others have seen these seven angels as dispensing the seven-fold graces of the Holy Spirit, and so as standing in for that Spirit Himself.  These Church fathers remind us of the seven graces of Isaiah 11, possessed by the coming Christ, and then given to His people: “And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” It seems to me that since both interpretations are given to us, we do not need to decide.  There are, indeed, seven archangels who do God’s will, and bless God’s people—we have stories of them at work with Daniel, with the Theotokos, with Tobias as he seeks a wife.  And there are rumors of the others in books that are not canonized, but have been read for ages.  But we also know that the Holy Spirit Himself is resident within His Church, giving the blessings of God’s presence, wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and respect for God. I am tempted to emphasize this second interpretation, because we have heard of the Father, the I Am, then the “spirits” or 7-fold Spirit, and now we hear about Jesus, the faithful Martyr who gave all for us, at the will of the Father.  We have two hints of the Holy Trinity, then—a three-fold name in time (He was, is, and is to come), and the reference to the I Am, the Spirit, and the Son.  Again, we stop our mouths, in awe.  The Holy One is speaking to us.

Jesus, Messiah, witness, first-born, and true King comes at the end of the Triune Name who speaks.  But John breaks into this divine message, and acclaims Jesus, extending our gaze on Him: He loves us, He is the liberator, He is the sacrifice who has shed His blood, and He has made us a kingdom and priests before the Father! John can hardly contain himself, and calls us also to ascribe to Him “glory and dominion for ever and ever!” With John, we cry “Amen!” Notice how John is not content to speak only of love, or only of liberty, or only of sacrifice—he must join all these together in order to comprehend what it is that Christ has done. In Jesus we see the character of God, poured out for us.  He is not only the Lover, but also the Liberator, and the One who gives in utter sacrifice for us.  These gifts of God spill over into us, so that we are given a new role.  We are no longer “slaves,” but “kings” and “priests” in the service of God.  We are taken back to God’s ancient promise to Israel, testified to in Exodus 19.  There we behold a wonderful picture of God as a mother eagle bearing her young out of danger, through the wilderness, to Himself, so that Israel could be His treasured possession out of all the nations of the earth, and live as a “royal priesthood” (LXX 19:6) and “holy nation.” Though Israel had a priestly function in the world, in that she witnessed among the pagans for the true God, it is not until Jesus Himself takes on this role that it can finally be given to God’s own people, those who are Christ’s own.

It is we who, because of Jesus, stand before the Father, and await the return of our Lord.  It is we who recognize John’s vision as he reminds us, “Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, everyone who pierced Him; and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of Him. Even so. Amen.”

There is, for those of us who share in Jesus’ royal and priestly character, a solemn watchfulness.  We look back to the past in gratitude, and sing our praises with John in the present.  But with him, we also look forward to a time—a time of complete liberation, and a time of reckoning.  John reminds us with quick brush strokes of the great vision of the Son of Man in Daniel 7, of the promise of the angels in Acts 1, and of the time of judgement and grace described in Zechariah 12-13.  Daniel’s vision spoke about the triumph of one like a Son of Man, who was exalted on the clouds to heaven, and received the kingdom of the Almighty; Luke spoke in Acts 1 of Jesus’ exaltation, and the promise of the angels that He would return as he had left; Zechariah speaks with hope of the repentance and cleansing of God’s people as they finally see things for what they are, look upon the One whom they have pierced, and mourn. All these glimpses of sober hope need to be taken together, as John has placed them.  We serve One who has been given all authority by the Ancient of Days, who has been pierced for our transgressions, who is coming back, and who will call people to repentance.  Perhaps we misunderstand the final phrase: “all tribes of the earth will wail on account of Him.”  Do we think of this as a final hopeless judgement?  A quick look at Zechariah will give it a different meaning.  In Zechariah, we read, “I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him.”  So, the weeping comes by means of God’s Spirit, and by grace.  It is the gift of tears, not the inconsolable loss of hope.  Indeed, the prophet goes on to say that the whole of the land will engage in this repentance, and that “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness” (13:1). And in John’s eyes, that grace is even greater—it is a grace of mourning given not only to Israel, but to “all the nations of the earth!”

This is the God who addresses us—the One who has done all things to make us kings and priests before the Father, interceding on behalf of those who do not know Him, longing for the time when this fountain will be opened, and when they, too, will see and love the One who died for them. Our God is the Alpha, who has begun all this, and the Omega, who will see it to completion.  With these assurances, we are ready to hear and see all that He will reveal in this deep book!

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