WHEN WE NEED TO SEE BEYOND OURSELVES
In the opening words of the Apocalypse, “the revelation of Jesus Christ,” the preposition “of” carries a double meaning: the revelation is about Jesus Christ and the revelation comes by means of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is both the content and the agent of the revelation. Jesus Christ is the way in which God reveals himself to us. Jesus Christ is also God himself being revealed to us.
Revelation is not information about the bad world that we live in, or a report on the first century church under persecution. It is a proclamation by and about Jesus Christ. Items regarding future and past are introduced insofar as they are useful in focusing on Jesus Christ.
It is difficult to sustain this focus. There are so many fascinating symbols to pursue and so many intriguing subjects to take up, but it is the only way the Revelation can be read sanely. Without this controlling center, Revelation, indeed, the Bible is a mere encyclopedia of religion with no more plot than a telephone directory.
What are we to make of all this material? Is there a plot, a central theme? There is so much action and so much said, such a diversity of style and content, that the devout mind is liable to confusion. If you were charged with keeping Christ at the center, how would you write? About a shepherd Christ tending his flock on the Palestinian hills? A benevolent Christ holding little children in his arms? A tragic Christ nailed to the cross? A compassionate Christ touching the leper? A debating Christ in dialogue with Nicodemus?
In directing the writing of Revelation, the Holy Spirit leads John to provide something quite different. John is commanded by the trumpet voice to begin his writing by describing a vision of Christ “like a son of man.” The phrase “son of man” originates in the vision of Daniel:
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14)
When Jesus called himself Son of Man it evoked puzzled consternation: this apparently ordinary, itinerant rabbi, the Son of Man? Where are the lightning flashes and the flowing robes? He does not call down legions of angels to establish his power, but instead this Son of Man has dinner with a prostitute, stops off for lunch with a tax-collector, wastes time blessing children when there were Roman legions to be chased from the land, heals unimportant losers and ignores high-achieving Pharisees and influential Sadducees. And he ends up hanging pierced and bleeding on a cross.
Then came eye witness testimony that the cross was empty and the grave was empty, and the Risen Christ was seen, and touched, and heard. But John’s congregations, were struggling, plunged into suffering and tribulation and day-by-day decision making in matters of faith and morals. The incredible three and one-half years of ministry of Jesus was now colored by decades of persecution, tribulation, and bloodshed that reduced of the gospel to keeping a stiff upper lip, to getting by, to grim morality and all that without joy.
And so God sent this last word on Christ – a glorious, powerful, heavenly vision of the Son of Man. John says, “I turned to see the voice.”
The vision of Christ begins with a description of his clothing: “a long robe with a golden girdle round his breast.” Before we know what the Son of Man looks like, we know what he does. Clothing defines role: he wears the garment prescribed for Aaron in his priestly work. The Son of Man is a priest. Just as a police officer’s uniform creates expectations in the person who meets him, so this priestly dress shapes the responses that develop throughout the unfolding details of the vision.
A priest presents God to us; he also presents us to God. The priest opens up routes closed by fear or guilt or ignorance or superstition so that there is access. A priest mediates. He is just as much on God’s side as on our side. He is just as much on our side as on God’s side.
If we want to be more than we are, a priest promises help. If we regret the mess we are in, a priest promises help. If the Son of Man does the work of priest, there is much to be in awe of but nothing to be afraid of. If the Son of Man does the work of priest, there is much to be repented of, but nothing of which to despair.
This priest is pure: “his head and his hair were white wool, white as snow.” We remember the prophet’s promise, “Your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” We remember the psalmist’s prayer, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” It happened. Christ is fulfilled promise and answered prayer – clean, holy.
He is purifying: “his eyes were like a flame of fire.” Fire penetrates and transforms. Holiness gets inside us and when it gets inside us it changes us. Christ’s gaze penetrates and purifies. He doesn’t look at us, he looks into us, he invades us.
“His feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace.” John was familiar with Daniel’s vision of “great image” that Nebuchadnezzar dreamed and Daniel interpreted. That image had a head of fine gold, a torso of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, and legs of iron, but feet that were a mixture of iron and clay. The iron and clay did not make a good bond. The image itself was magnificent, constructed of precious and strong metals, but it was set on a base that was flawed. When struck by a rolling rock, it fell apart. No matter how wonderful the image, its inadequate base doomed it to destruction.
Christ’s kingdom is set on a base that is as strong as its superstructure is magnificent. The bronze base is firm. Bronze is a combination of iron and copper. Iron is strong but it rusts. Copper won’t rust but is pliable. Combine the two in bronze and the best quality of each is preserved, the strength of the iron and the endurance of the copper. The rule of Christ is set on this base: the foundation of his power has been tested by fire.
“And his voice was like the sound of many waters.” The metaphor says nothing about the meaning of the words; it describes the sound of the voice. Christ’s voice is commensurate with his appearance, awesome and commanding.
So far the vision has elaborated aspects of his being; now it tells his function: “in his right hand he held seven stars.” The “seven stars” would be the planets, the unfixed stars, of which seven were known in the first century. The movements of these planets among the constellations and in relation to sun and moon was the fundamental stuff of astrology. The shifting locations of the planets in the twelve constellations of the zodiac were believed to determine destiny. Both public and private affairs were controlled by the seven planets. Studying and interpreting them was skilled and valued work. The astrologist was a person of prestige in the ancient world.
And Christ holds the seven stars in his right hand! “Right hand” – with all apologies to and respect for “lefties” – means ready for use. A soldier with a sword in his right hand is ready to fight; a shepherd with a staff in the right hand is at work; a hammer in the right hand is ready to build. What is in my right hand is what I am capable of doing and what, in fact, I am ready to do.
What does Christ do? He runs the cosmos. It is that simple. The planets do not control us; Christ controls the planets. Later in the vision, the stars will be identified as “the angels of the seven churches.” What pagans thought were gods and goddesses, impersonal, remote, and controlling, are ministering angels, are God’s messengers bringing his word and glory into the midst of the Church as Christians worship and sing and pray.
Hebrews tells us that the “word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” John uses the metaphor of the sword to demonstrate what takes place when Christ speaks. God’s will is articulated sharply and penetratingly out of Christ’s mouth. These words conquer. Christ’s words are not limp. They cut through willful resistance, divide good from evil, overcome rebellion, and establish righteousness.
When Moses returned from the mountain of revelation, his face was shining so brightly that the people could not look on it. The Aaronic benediction prays, “The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you” (Num. 6:25). In Christ, the blessing of God is made personal in the shining face: “And his face was like the sun shining in full strength.”
Much of life is spent in darkness, whether literal or metaphorical. No one is completely at home in the dark. In the darkness we lose perspective. Nightmares terrorize us, fears paralyze us. In the darkness our imaginations fashion spectres. Sounds are ominous. Movements are ghostly. A light that shines in the darkness shows us that the terror and the chaos have no objective reality to them. In his gospel John said, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
John has used seven items to describe the Son of Man. The items are arranged symmetrically. The first and last items, the white head and shining face, are most important: forgiveness and blessing are the first and final impressions. The second and sixth items, eyes and mouth, are the organs of relationship, sight and sound being the chief means of communication: Christ shows God to be in relationship with us. The third and fifth items, feet and right hand, are the paired members of the body that represent capability: feet give solid underpinning and mobility; the right hand is the instrument of the executive will: God is capable and active on our behalf. The fourth item in the series of seven is the voice. It is at the center. All prophetic and apostolic words converge in this voice that thunders sounds of passionate love and urgent mercy.
The vision is not just vision. Intelligence and will are also addressed. On seeing Christ in this vision, St. John falls in a dead faint. He is lifted to his feet by the reassuring words, “Fear not,” the same words by which Peter’s sea-storm terror was changed to trust, and Mary Magdalene’s empty-tomb panic was changed into excited witness.
John, away from his churches, fretting from lack of intimate knowledge of his people, sees the penetrating, attentive eyes of his Savior. John, weak from confinement, sees the strong, burnished feet of his Lord. John, used to speaking with authority to his apt-to-stray sheep but now without voice, hears the authoritative voice of the Ruler of church and world. John, homesick for his congregations, sees them held in the right hand of the Shepherd of Israel. John at the mercy of the political sword of Rome, sees the word of God proceeding swordlike and not returning void.
Rome shut John away so his churches could neither see nor hear him. The Spirit filled his eyes with sights and his mouth with speech that have given sight and direction to Christians ever since.
You are in John’s congregation. You are being persecuted. You are being tempted to compromise. You are being tempted to give in. What does this vision of Christ mean to you? In the First Century? In the 21st?