Lighting Up the Apocalypse 18: The Bitter-Sweet Scroll

Revelation 10; Ezekiel 3:1-3; Daniel 9-12

We have come in chapter 10 to the point in John’s vision when we expect that we will finally hear the seventh trumpet sounded, and reach a conclusion of sorts.  Instead, for the next few chapters John will tell us about important signs, keeping us in suspense for that final trumpet call.  The voice of the angel in this chapter says that “there will be no more delay”—but for us, as readers, there is a significant delay during which we learn about matters that are key to our identity as those who follow the Lamb.

What John sees is “another mighty angel” who comes with a mysterious announcement that heard, but not translated, and who also holds a scroll that John, the prophet, will eat.  Here is what John sees and does in chapter ten:

Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire.  He had a little scroll open in his hand. And he set his right foot on the sea, and his left foot on the land,  and called out with a loud voice, like a lion roaring. When he called out, the seven thunders sounded. And when the seven thunders had sounded, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down.” And the angel whom I saw standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven  and swore by him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and what is in it, the earth and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it, that there would be no more delay,  but that in the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh angel, the mystery of God would be fulfilled, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.

Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me again, saying, “Go, take the scroll that is open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.”  So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll. And he said to me, “Take and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.”  And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it. It was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter.  And I was told, “You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings.”

This angel has clearly been given an important mandate.  His appearance is much like that of the strange and strong figure who appeared in Daniel chapter 10, with a splendid face and shining, strong legs.  Over his head rests the glory-cloud of God, and a rainbow, the sign of God’s presence and blessing.  And in his hand he carries another scroll—a smaller one than that which the Lamb unsealed in chapter 5, but of great importance to John, and therefore to us.

The position of the angel tells us a good deal—he stands upon land and sea, showing God’s authority over the whole of creation.  Similarly, he speaks with power as though what he says comes directly from the Holy One who sent him.  The words that he utters are so divine that they sound like thunder—remember how Jesus heard God speak just before He raised Lazarus, and the people said that it was like thunder?  They are also so holy that John is told to conceal them— not to reveal what he has heard in his book.

We may be surprised, because, after all, he has been told already to write down what he sees and hears, and the whole point of the book of Revelation is to reveal, to “unveil,” God’s mysteries.  This is in contrast to the OT vision of Daniel, in which the prophet is told no less than three times to seal up the prophecy (Dan 9:24; 12:4; 12:9), until humankind is ready to receive it.  The book of Revelation begins, instead, with a promise that Jesus intends to show these things to His servants, and it is only here in chapter 10 that we witness a reticence on God’s part.  But this “holding back” is in itself a revelation, isn’t it?  Through John’s eyes we see the angel in all his glory, with the promised scroll in his hand. We hear the voice of the angel, roaring like a lion, thundering seven times. Yet part of the revelation is that there is still mystery, still a seven-fold thundering, still something we cannot yet comprehend—John does not directly interpret what that angelic voice said.

Part of knowing that God speaks is knowing that we do not “get it all”—that His will is higher than our comprehension, and calls for our humility.  This is true even though, in the new covenant, Jesus has called us no longer servants but friends. So it is that we stand, serving with our priest during the Eucharist on the Lord’s Day, while we also acknowledge, with the father who celebrates with us, that God is served by innumerable archangels and saints. He does not need our service, and we are not yet worthy of it—yet God deigns to accept the sacrifice that we are offering.  Knowing our place before God, and acknowledging our inability to take in all of God’s glory, is actually a part of God’s tender revelation to us, whom He calls His friends.

Yet we do learn something besides the fact that we are not yet fully able! Through John and the angel we hear that the long time of waiting to know God’s will is over, and that the mystery of God is fulfilled.  And then we stand amazed as John is given a direct command to go, and to eat and digest the book of prophecy held in the angel’s hand. The voice comes from heaven, seemingly from God himself.  As he obeys these words, John follows in the footsteps of the prophet Ezekiel which says in chapter 3:

And  God said to me, “Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.”  So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat.  And he said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.”

John’s task, seems to be more complicated than that of Ezekiel.  Ezekiel is NOT sent to people who speak foreign languages, and the scroll to him seems unambiguously sweet—yet certainly what he had to tell the exiled people of God had some bitter things in it! For John, though, the scroll described as bitter-sweet from the get-go, and the audience is varied.  We should not be surprised to hear that John’s word is complex— bitter-sweet, sweet like honey in the mouth, but bitter in the belly.  John is at pains to tell us that things are not always one-sided, but that we should be prepared for ambiguity in this life.  After all, John’s hope (and our hope!) is a Lamb who has been slaughtered!  And the scroll that he eats and digests is certainly intended to speak about our human predicament as a whole.  It is not simply a word for one tribe, one historical people that God has chosen, but for all of God’s human creation. As John is commanded, this scroll is to be the material that he will digest, so that his words can speak a true and universal prophecy: “You must again prophesy over many peoples and nations and languages and kings.”  What will come in the next few sequences concerns the whole world, with all its people groups.  It is a revelation for everyone.  Thus, though something is held back, in the holiness of God, much is also declared, and declared concerning many and to many.  The time has come for an open revelation of the truth, because the mystery of God is being revealed in Jesus.  The time is over when God has limited His revelation to one people group, for there is, as St. Paul reminds us, no longer any “Jew or Gentile,” and there is, as John’s gospel says, a Savior who has come to save the entire world.

In the next few chapters we are going to witness, in vision, the universal nature of Jesus’ work among us, as well as the bitter-sweet nature of our our witness here, as we await the completion of His salvation.  We are called, in our faithfulness to the Word of God, to hold two things together in tension—first, that God has indeed revealed Himself in a new and living way in His Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension.  This new way means that many things that were hidden are now made clear.  And yet, the thunders have spoken, and we have not yet been told all that they have said.

We have been given a pattern to follow, and a living Presence who will never leave us—and yet there remain things that we do not yet understand, for we are still in time, still bound by the fall, still not yet in possession of bodies and minds like that of the risen Lord Jesus.  The Holy Spirit has been given as a seal of God’s promises, so that like John, we find ourselves on the verge of heaven—but we have not yet crossed into that place.  Perhaps, we can see John as offering to us, in his visions, an experience like that of Moses, who was allowed to see the Promised Land from Mount Pisgah, before the people actually went there.  Now, borrowing John’s eyes, we see the Holy One, we see the might and authority of the angel, we hear a sound that speaks words—and we are given a modified revelation that concerns not only ourselves, but many peoples, nations, and rulers.  Like John, we are assured that knowing what God is up to will be both a sweet and a bitter thing. And we know, because of the pause in the sounding of the trumpets, that we must wait patiently to understand everything that we have heard and seen. John’s vision stands for us like the informed consent given to a patient as he or she prepares for therapy.  God calls us His friends, and so tells us the truth—both that which comforts, and that which warns.  And the greatest comfort is this: that He knows even those things which we cannot yet comprehend, and is working everything for the good of those who love Him.




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