As the followers of Christ evolved from a group that was largely Jewish in the first decades to a movement that was largely Gentile, numerous changes occurred. Some of these changes were necessary and healthy, while others brought with them catastrophic consequences. Seismic theological consequences took place as the increasingly Gentile church abandoned both its historical understanding of and theological roots in the Jewish Scriptures.
By the phrase “theological roots in the Jewish Scriptures” I am NOT referring to the frequent Christian practice of cherry picking the Old Testament. This classic Christian cherry picking includes finding the Old Testament useful to argue for capital punishment, certain views of creation, dieting, lyrics for Christian hymns, Vacation Bible School stories, and predictions of Jesus. The early church’s appreciation for the Jewish Scriptures was far more profound than mere cherry picking; there is not a chapter in Revelation that does not rely upon imagery and themes from the Jewish Scriptures.
Scholars have at times questioned whether early congregations of believers knew the sayings of Jesus and the narrative materials that would eventually be used to write the four canonical Gospels. Whatever one thinks about that issue, that question cannot really be a valid concern for John and his congregations in Roman Asia. It is very clear from contemporary Christian writings such as the Didache and 1 Clement, not too mention the book of Revelation itself, that the words and deeds of Jesus were known by congregations by the end of the 1st century AD.
One of the many, many examples of the influence of Old Testament imagery and theology in Revelation is seen in the Christophany of Revelation 1 when “one like a son of man” is revealed to John (Rev. 1:12-16). The fact that this scene resonates so clearly with images from Daniel is all the more significant since the Christophany might have consisted of images of Jesus from the Gospels. Why not reveal Jesus in terms of the imagery in the Synoptic Gospels or the Fourth Gospel, like modern Gentile Christianity typically does?
John and those in his congregations lived in a spiritual climate where often their first thoughts about God and his work in this world through Jesus the Messiah were formulated in terms of vibrant Old Testament imagery and theology. John’s writing makes it abundantly clear that he would have rejected, in fact he did reject, any notion of congregations of Christ that understood God, God’s Anointed One, and God’s people in this world apart from a robust reliance upon and continuation of major themes from the Old Testament. Admittedly this is an oversimplification (and subject to misunderstanding as all oversimplifications are), but it seems to me that John would have chosen to be a “Biblical Christian” rather than a cherry picking “New Testament Christian.” In this regard John would have been out of step with most forms of modern Christianity, East or West, Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox.
I cannot know for sure whether John had ever read 2 Timothy, but the book of Revelation, including the Christophany of 1:12-16, surely demonstrates what it can look like when a Christian leader uses “the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” and employs them “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:15-17).
Graeco-Roman Antiquities & the New Testament
They Think they are Jews, but Are Not
One of the messier issues in early Christian history, including the book of Revelation, is the relationship between “church and synagogue.” Certainly by the second generation of Christian history, those who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah began to affirm that they, rather than non-believing Jews, formed the real Israel of God. Stated briefly, many Christians believed that Jews who did not affirm that Jesus was the Messiah forfeited their rights, privileges, and citizenship as members of Israel.
This general Christian conviction seems to show up in Rev. 2:9 and 3:9. Some scholars who, like the early Luther, are critical of John’s theology charge the author of Revelation with religious bigotry or anti-Semitism for telling non-believing Jews that they were no longer entitled to be called Israelites. While God allows everyone the freedom to embrace or to reject the teachings of Scripture, it should at least be pointed out that long before the advent of Christ many Second Temple Jews had already begun the process of eliminating others who regarded themselves as Israelites.
I am referring, of course, to the Samaritans. Viewed historically, beginning from the call of Abraham, the group that came to be called Samaritans shared as much history with Judea’s Jews than they did not share. Every episode from Abraham through Solomon was common heritage to both the “Samaritans” and the “Jews.”
The fact that the “Jews” of Jesus’ day had disenfranchised their siblings became even more apparent with an important archaeological discovery in the 1970s. Most of what has been known about the Samaritans is what is told about them by their enemies (=Jews). As far as archaeological evidence is concerned, there were only a handful of artifacts that came from Samaritan hands.
Even though archaeological excavations and research had taken place on the Greek island of Delos for decades, it was in the 1970s that the French archaeologists discovered epigraphical evidence on Delos authored by so-called “Samaritans.” The startling fact was that the Samaritans on Delos did not call themselves “Samaritans.” Rather, they regarded themselves as “Israelites who worship at Mt. Gerizim” (or “Israelites who make first fruit offerings at Mt. Gerizim”). The Jews of the pre-Christian era had systematically attempted to amputate those who worshipped at Gerizim from the history that began at Abraham.
One can choose to disapprove of John’s language and theology in Rev. 2:9 and 3:9, but there is little room for depicting the Jews in Smyrna and Philadelphia as victims when long before Christianity they and their ancestors had used a similar rhetoric and process of marginalization against their siblings, those Israelites who worshipped at Gerizim.
The few words that John speaks about himself bespeak much about his style of leadership and ministry. With so many of the 7 churches of Revelation entangled in assimilation to the urban values and religions of Roman Asia, it certainly would have been easy for John to give prophecies about the virtue of assimilation and the wisdom of making peace with Rome. Instead, John has a lifestyle that mirrors a devotion to the testimony about Jesus and God’s word. Accordingly, it was “because of the word of God” (Rev. 1:9) that John finds himself relegated to the island of Patmos. There is no need to resort to the melodramatic embellishments given by later Christian authors or modern commentators to describe the circumstances of John’s stay on Patmos. We, in fact, do not know the details of his circumstances on the island of Patmos.
Roman authors do inform us, however, that this form of punishment by exile was not unusual for individuals that Roman rulers and administrators regarded as dangerous to society and governmental authority. In fact, being sent off to some island away from the encouragement and love of family, friends, and supporters was regarded as a badge of achievement by many Roman dissidents of John’s time. Depending on the severity of the crime and the status of the one being condemned by Rome, punishment could range from death, to hard labor at the mines, to torture, to imprisonment, or to deportation. John’s punishment was certainly less severe than that of Antipas (Rev. 2:13), but his leadership is seen in his willingness to stand firm no matter what Rome imposed upon him. In this regard John is certainly a “companion in the sufferings” of all the Christians in Roman Asia (Rev. 1:9).
In the midst of all the variety of societal and familial estrangement that John and other believers experienced, he expresses his solidarity with the Christians on the mainland by means of the familial term “brother.” There is no familial hierarchy in John’s leadership style; John is not their father, but their brother.
Another facet of John’s leadership style is his candor in acknowledging his own sins. Transparency is not always evident in modern Christian leaders. There are two identical episodes toward the end of Revelation that display John’s sinfulness and his willingness to acknowledge it. Both in Revelation 19:10 and in 22:8-9 John depicts his own willful participation in idolatry, specifically angelolatry. John stops his idolatry only because he is commanded to by the angel, who instructs him to “worship God” instead. Either John’s theology was so flawed on this topic that he did not know it was wrong to worship angels, or he knew it was wrong, but did it anyway. In a book that is very hard on the sin of idolatry, whether committed by pagans or Christians, John reveals his own temporary participation, even twice, in this very sin which he so strongly condemns. That kind of honesty is not always easy to find in Christian leadership.
Would it not be an encouragement for the modern church if her leaders were prophetic enough to incorporate some of John’s leadership style?
To better clarify the issue of whether one can “keep the words” of a prophetic book, it should be remembered that God expected Israel to obey the words of his prophets. The conviction that someone can respond, either in obedience or disobedience, to a vision, visual act (e.g., gestures), or visual message is continued in the Gospels and the preaching of the early church. Even though the Apostle Peter clearly spent some time “wondering about the meaning of the vision” (Acts 10:17) of the sheet with unclean animals (Acts 10:9-16), he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it had a meaning and it was obvious to him before the end of the episode that the vision meant, “God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28b). What did Peter do to “keep the words” of the vision he received at Joppa? He went into the home of the unsaved gentile, Cornelius (Acts 10:28).
Just as a person might need help with the meaning of a non-visionary text (e.g., the eunuch in Acts 8:30b-31 required help in understanding the meaning of a text), so at times people need assistance in the interpretation of visionary texts (notice the interpretations given in Dan. 7:15-17; Rev. 7:13-14). To embrace Luther’s skeptical ideas about the meaning of John’s book, “no one knows what that is, to say nothing of keeping it,” is to put yourself on a path where you might even question whether parables can be responded to. Jesus seems to have thought that people in his audience could either obey or disobey the meaning of a parable.
What I am suggesting (contrary to the heirs of the early Luther) is that visions and images have their own grammar and lexicon with which one interprets their meanings, and following that interpretation, one can better understand the blessings that come from keeping such prophetic ideas. The blessing that John promises in this “blessing heptad” will vary depending on the content of the individual images. In light of the phantasmagory [I have been waiting for weeks to use that word] that characterizes John’s prophecy, it is not a superficial or quick task to responsibly interpret the visual content of Revelation.
I have personally chosen to accept the divine perspective on blessings offered at the beginning of Revelation; specifically, there is no blessing for me if I merely hear the words given through John. In order to receive the blessing, I myself must also “take to heart what is written in the words of this prophecy” (Rev. 1:3). Consequently, I cannot go along with the idea that Revelation is so bewildering that all I can hope to learn from it is “who wins in the end.” To state the obvious, there is a correlation between the amount of the “words of this prophecy” that can be understood and the amount of the blessings that can be given based upon “keeping the words of this prophecy.”
As we contemplate the details of biblical study and hermeneutics, John’s prophecy makes it clear that there are truths of God and values of the kingdom that believers must “keep,” whether they are stated in the Greek imperative mood or in colorful and high-decibel visions.
When John presents material in groups of seven, he sometimes uses the word “seven;” there are, for example, “seven stars,” “seven lamp stands,” “seven churches,” and “seven seals.” At other times John’s prophetic book has implicit sevens, such the heavenly encomium that lists (1) power, (2) riches, (3) wisdom, (4) strength, (5) honor, (6) glory, and (7) blessing (Rev. 5:12). Whether implicit or explicit these groupings of seven are called heptads.
One of John’s implicit heptads begins in chapter one (Rev. 1:3) and comes to its conclusion in the final chapter of Revelation (22:7). This particular heptad is identified generally by John’s use of the phrase “Blessed (Greek, makarios) is the one . . . .” or “Blessed (Greek, makarioi) are those . . . .” When we look at these seven teachings about blessings (Rev. 1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7, 14), it is more than just a little interesting that two (Rev. 1:3; 22:7) of the seven blessings of this particular heptad are related to the hearer “keeping” the words of John’s prophetic book. How does one do that?
More than one interpreter of Revelation has questioned whether it is possible to “keep the words” of a book of visions. The theologically young Martin Luther raised such a question. His comment on this issue can be found within his generally disparaging views about the entire book of Revelation that were written in his 1522 introduction to the New Testament. Luther wrote (in Luther’s later edition of the New Testament his ideas on the book of Revelation were more pious and orthodox sounding),
I say what I feel. I miss more than one thing in this book, and it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic. First and foremost, the apostles do not deal with visions, but prophesy in clear and plain words. . . . For it befits the apostolic office to speak clearly of Christ and his deeds, without images and visions. . . . Again, they are suppose to be blessed who keep what is written in this book; and yet no one knows what that is, to say nothing of keeping it.
Notwithstanding Luther’s criticisms, it is clear that John was doing what he was told to do, since Christ commanded him “Write on a scroll what you see” (Rev. 1:11a). Perhaps Luther had a memory lapse [or worse, was only a left brain theologian], for there were certainly many examples in the Hebrew Scriptures of God’s prophets “seeing” a message from God, rather than merely “hearing” a message from God. In Hebrew prophecy it is not just a matter of a “word from the Lord,” but also a “vision from the Lord.” As we will see, Revelation is not the only book of Scripture that requires an appreciation for the visual, the imaginative, and the poetic in order to interpret it carefully.
Isaiah the prophet, for example, reveals that, “The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Isa. 1:1) and “The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem” (Isa. 2:1) and “The oracle concerning Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw” (Isa. 13:1).
Amos the prophet similarly wrote, “The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa—what he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake, when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam son of Jehoash was king of Israel” (Amos 1:1).
Micah the prophet reports, “The word of the LORD that came to Micah of Moresheth during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah—the vision he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem” (Micah 1:1).
Ezekiel the prophet confirms a related experience when writing, “the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God” (Ezek. 1:1) and “I looked, and I saw a figure like that of a man. From what appeared to be his waist down he was like fire” (Ezek. 8:2).
Obadiah the prophet begins, “The vision of Obadiah. Thus says the Lord GOD concerning Edom — We have heard a report from the LORD” (Obad. 1:1a).
Nahum the prophet indicates a similar experience when he reports, “An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite. The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath” (Nah. 1:1).
TO BE CONTINUED IN THE NEXT POST