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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