Interlude, 2: The Sweet and the Bitter

This week, I have the benefit of coming into our post after already having had an extended discussion with students on Revelation 10-11, which was quite helpful in directing me to the parts of the text that made the least sense to the average reader.

6359257861085124741410302557_jhghbThe only problem is the answer to “which parts?” was a resounding all of them.

So let’s back up and get some context.

In the posts on chapter 1, we discussed the various genres and purposes of this prophetic work – mostly, that it exists to comfort those followers of Christ who were afflicted by the systemically unjust Roman Empire and to call them to resist (or in Revelation’s parlance, to overcome). It also, however, is a work which afflicts those who are made comfortable by this same system: a word which is perhaps even more applicable to modern, western Christians.

When we discussed the letters to the churches in chapters 2-3, we saw how John ingeniously used the everyday experiences and civic images of his fellow believers to encourage them opt out of this system and to overcome.

Then, when we arrived in chapters 4-5, we were given the apocalyptic, heavenly perspective, in which God’s rule is recognized as absolute. However, it was not until we saw the triumphant (overcoming) Lion of Judah-who-is-actually-the slain-Lamb of God that we finally got our first clear idea of what sort of “overcoming” this book is actually calling us to: sacrificial death on behalf of our enemies.

Next, we found ourselves getting a bit out of order, as we discussed the first two series of judgments: the seals of chapter 6 and the trumpets of 8-9. This was because both sets used different imagery to essentially show the same point: violent Divine judgment does not bring the world to repentance when it is not accompanied by the faithful, sacrificial witness of God’s people.

Now here we are, between the judgments. As we discussed last time, the series each take a breath between numbers 6 and 7 (i.e. before the cycle is completed). Each time, first in chapter 7 and now in 10-11, we are given a view of God’s people who have successfully overcome, with each vision of the Church showing a different angle of the ultimate call to overcome through sacrificial witness.

Although there are many themes one could derive from John’s work, we would be utterly remiss if we do not leave it with the understanding that the purpose of God’s people is witness to the paradoxical victory of Christ.

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Seals, trumpets, and apocalyptic visions of death. . . everything is awesome!

So, while there seems to be a tremendous amount going on in these two chapters, if we break it down into the two main images – the little scroll and the two witnesses – and view them from the primary motivation of these judgment interludes – giving a vision of the victorious Church – we can hopefully not just make sense out of the text but also derive some meaning and encouragement from it.

When chapter 10 opens, we see a very impressive angel.

Holding a “little scroll” which has already been opened.

Speaking with the voices of 7 thunders a message which John is directly commanded not to relate to us.

Let’s walk through that.

As I (and many others whose works I am much-indebted to) read it, the angel is a direct representative of the One who sits on the throne. Read the description of the angel (robed in cloud, rainbow above, shining like the sun with fiery feet, and speaking with the voice of thunder) and compare it to our views of the Divine Christ in 1:12-16 and of the Divine Throne in 4:1-6.

No seriously. Click the links and read. I’ll wait.

Okay, so this Divinely-appointed messenger stands authoritatively upon the land and sea (i.e. all the earth) and speaks with the voices of seven thunders – only John is not allowed to write what these thunders say. Now, considering our context, we’ve just gone through two sets of seven judgments . . . which were delivered by God’s messengers . . . which John heard and wrote down . . . so it only makes sense these “thunders” were to be the next cycle. It also makes sense from a numbers perspective since the seals affect “a fourth of the earth” (6:8), and the trumpets affect a third of everything (8:7-12; 9:15-18), while the bowl judgments (to which we’ll get in due time) affect everything – so most likely, these thunders would have affected 2/3 or 3/4.

Only we’re never told what would’ve happened in that version of God’s “violent judgment thought-experiment” as we called these chapters. I believe this is because God has proven the point that judgments alone do not bring repentance, and so no further examples need be given.

Or maybe John just had writer’s block and wanted an easy out. Either way.

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So then, the “little scroll.”

There are several ways to interpret this, but I think the simplest and most helpful way is to view this scroll as the same one that John weeps over and the Lamb receives to much celebration in 5:1-8. This would also make it the same scroll which was in “sealed with seven seals” (the opening of which caused our judgment series to begin) and delivered by “a mighty angel” (note that it’s “another mighty angel” who delivers the little scroll to John in 10:1). Again, there are plenty of interesting things an interpreter can do with the difference between biblion and bibliridion but this way directs us right back to the main point of a scroll in apocalyptic literature: namely, to reveal the will of God.

This means that the seals and trumpet judgments are not the point. So many people (and certain annoying pop-interpretations-of-Revelation-that-sell-lots-of-books-and-make-less-successful-movies) see the judgments as the most noticeable aspect of this work, but they are hardly what John is trying to say. Sure, they’re memorable, but in the larger scope of Revelation, the judgment series are mere examples – literary devices preparing us for the revelation of God’s will through the scroll which we first saw in chapter 5 and which now reappears in 10:2, 8-10.

You see the significance of this right?

It means that everything we’ve seen up to this point has prepared us for this moment.

The vision of the Divine Christ.

The letters.

The Throne and the slain Lamb.

The seals.

The 144,000 and the multitude.

The trumpets.

All making us ready to receive the will of the Divine for the Gospel Community.

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My ever-present help in time of need.

So John is handed the scroll and then told to “Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but ‘in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey’” (10:9). Well, our prophet dutifully does as he’s told and, sure enough, some scrolls apparently taste like honey buns but give you gnarly indigestion.

Curious what you’re missing from all this? If you find yourself asking that question in Revelation, you probably ought to assume there’s an image from that two-thirds of your Bible you never touch, what we call the Old Testament and John’s readers would’ve just called Scripture.

Basically, this scene is a remixed version of Ezekiel 2-3 (especially 2:8 – 3:3) and probably also has in mind the ministry of Jeremiah (cf. 15:16). The basic point of both Ezekiel’s visions, to which John is constantly referring, and Jeremiah’s ministry is that they felt the Divine pressure upon them to speak prophetic words (i.e. afflicting and comforting) to the ever-disobedient people of Israel, even though it costs them social standing, possessions, and eventually according to tradition, their lives. The reason John includes this image here, before we receive the will of God through the parable of the two witnesses, is that just like the prophets of old, God’s faithful servants must realize there is both a sweetness and a bitterness to following God, and that we must fully embody (eat) that Divine will in order to experience the wholeness of life.

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Ready to fill with all the angst from your first midterm.

We are never promised that “everything will work out.” Despite what Christian bookstores might tell high school graduates, the verses speaking of God “knowing the plans I have for you” and “all things working together for good” do not promise wealth, health, happiness, or success. In fact, if we read the Bible with even a small amount of care, we will find that God’s servants most often end their lives in great physical pain, alone and helpless. Yet despite such pain, following the way of Lamb is the path to true Life. So the sweetness and bitterness are all of a piece.

 

Now for the two witnesses.

The image of the wholeness of life, both sweet and bitter, continues in chapter 11, when John measures out the Temple – the place of God’s presence, provision, and protection – and sees it “trampled by the Gentiles.” Out of this arises the witnesses, the lamp stands (cf. Rev. 1:12-13, 20; 2:1-5) and olive trees (Zech. 4) who look much like the greatest Old Testament prophets: Elijah (fire consuming his enemies and causing drought) and Moses (turning waters to blood and various plagues). These two prophets testify to the will of God, not simply that the evil will be destroyed, but rather calling the world to repentance since God is intending to live with them (hence the sackcloth and Zechariah references).

As with the scroll, there are several interpretations of whom these witnesses might be, but again, the widest and probably most helpful view is that these two people represent the Church fulfilling its role. They represent the old covenant’s adherence to God’s law but also are connected directly with the will and ways of the Lamb. There are two of them because that was the way a testimony could be proven as valid (Deut. 17:6; 19:15; Matt. 18:16; John 8:17; II Cor. 13:1) and their work is accompanied by signs of Divine power, much as the prophets’ and apostles’ ministries. Their work is carried out in the world, wherever the people are who need God’s word (hence the multi-city image referencing Sodom, Egypt, and Jerusalem).1

In the end, the beast (to whom we’ll be introduced soon, but who correlates with the world’s systems and rulers) comes up and destroys them, relieving unrepentant humanity of the guilt they felt due to the testimony of God’s people. However, while for in the short-run their death seems to legitimize the rule of the beast, God’s way of sacrificial death is ultimately proven valid by their resurrection. The way of the Lamb, though long in coming, is ultimately proven to be the “deeper magic.” Following this vindication, there is a judgment (an earthquake), but one which is different from our previous series’ in two deeply significant ways:

First, the number of people who die versus those who live. Remember, in the judgment cycles, we’ve seen an increasing number of those who die in the violence yet in the moment of the Church’s vindication, when God could understandably wipe out everyone who celebrated the death of the saints, only a tenth of the world is destroyed, leaving nine-tenths left to “give glory to God. What’s happening here is John is taking the common Old Testament trope of a “faithful remnant” and turning it on its head, leaving us with a majority of people repenting rather than a small, shining elect.

All of which leads us to the end of this post and the second significant departure from previous judgment series.

In Revelation, we discover that the novel role of the Church is to fulfill what the Old Testament people of Israel never could quite do: bring the nations to God. But this role was not fully understood until the scroll containing God’s will was finally opened and read, showing how if God’s people are willing to embody the bitterness of martyrdom (or at the least, exclusion from the systems of worldly success), they can also, finally, taste the sweetness of being the Divine instruments of peace, reconciling the world to God through Christ (II Cor. 5:19).

The world does not need to see our literal resurrections to know that the eternal Life of God dwells within us, because, what we find through the way of the Lamb is that eternal Life is about the here and now – Life before death – as much as it is about the hereafter – Life after death. This is the great message, the scroll, which has been committed to us as the people of God. May we be willing to fully embody it, tasting both its bitterness and sweetness.

 

1. Reminds me of the great line from Martin Luther as quoted by Bonhoeffer: “The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared?”

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