Friday, 11 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 1: the gift of prophecy

This is the first of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise.

Chapter 1 of Revelation begins with a bang. First, we get a greeting of the kind that's found in many of the letters of the New Testament - from an elder to the various churches he's writing to. Except that he doesn't say it's from himself, but rather that he's speaking on behalf of "him who is and who was and who is to come" (God) and also from Jesus. So immediately we have a claim of prophecy - that the author, already identified as John, is speaking on behaf of God and Jesus.

Then we have a couple of brief statements of faith, of which one (v7), "Look! He is coming with the clouds!..." is important in the church's understanding of the coming of Christ, and is the basis of Charles Wesley's hymn "Lo he comes with clouds descending".

And then we're into the prophetic vision, where the prophet is given their commission by the divine. The Old Testmanent is full of these encounters - Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel and many others had an experience, often described very vividly, of the presence of the divine telling them to speak. John is in the same position. He tells us of his location (the island of Patmos), his condition (persecution for the sake of God & Jesus) and then his experience.

He has an encounter of the Son of Man, in white but with eyes of fire, feet of bronze and a voice of the waters, holding stars and surrounded by lampstands. A vision of power, though not the enthroned figure that Daniel saw of the Son of Man. The mystical number seven, which will recur throughout the book, makes it first apperance here, at least to refer to seven churches to whom John is commanded to send the message. The Son of Man, a mysterious figure from Daniel ch7 popular in Jewish apocalyptic literature of the time, is not identified here with Jesus (and Jesus is mentioned elsewhere in the chapter), but others have chosen to read him in that way. And in the usual way of these prophetic visions, the Son of Man explains the vision to John, unpacking its different elements. That won't be offered to us so much in later chapters!

What to make of this? From a Jewish perspective it would be very familiar as an establishment of prophecy. John is staking his claim as a legitimate prophet who has encountered the divine and been given a specific mission. He situates himself very clearly in the time he's writing, with late first-century (or early second-century) accounts of churches which were important; of times of persecution; and of talk of the Son of Man. John was writing a book for his times, as a prophetic vision from God. He wasn't speaking of the end of the world, but the time here and now.

Given the wild imagery of later chapters, I'll want to hang on to this: John is speaking of the here and now, not the distant future. It's a revelation for the present time. Those who seek to take it as a prophecy for events happening 2000 years later (and there are such people) should be very careful.

And there's the language: some beautiful phrases and passages, which ring down the centuries. "I am the Alpha and the Omega", "Look he is coming with the clouds", "I am the first and the last, and the living one". But none of it exactly cosy and everyday. These are high words, about high things. They may be about the present day, but they're not about the everyday.

An interesting start. It gets harder as we go on...

Next reading: ch 2+3, John blogs to seven churches

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