Lectionary Reflection for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

This excerpt comes from Revelation (BTCB) by Joseph L. Mangina, commenting on Revelation 22:17:

The cry of “come!” is threefold. The first utterance is that of the bride, anticipatorily embodied in the worshiping assembly, crying out in expectation of the bridegroom’s coming. The terrors and beauties disclosed in John’s visions serve only to heighten longing for the arrival of that day. The second utterance is that of the individual worshiper, who is invited to speak with the bride, and indeed as the bride. No one who has heard the Apocalypse and is willing to “keep the words of the prophecy” should be excluded from the feast. To invert Bonhoeffer’s famous saying, we could say that while grace is not cheap it is free—as free as the waters of life, which flow from the throne of God and the Lamb to anyone who is thirsty. This third member in the triad does not bid the listener to say “come!” but simply to come, to slake one’s thirst at the waters that cannot be bought. Revelation is a book that draws many sorts of boundaries: between the church and the world, between the holy and the unholy, between the life appropriate to God’s people and the life of Babylon. The urgent call to holiness of life is reiterated in these closing verses (22:11, 14–15). Yet like the gates of the city, the doors of the church are or should be fundamentally open. All are invited not to “come as they are,” but to come as the bride. John would have been bemused at the notion that seriousness about witness and seriousness about Christian holiness are somehow in competition. In fact, they demand each other.

©2010 by Joseph L. Mangina. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

This excerpt comes from Revelation (BTCB) by Joseph L. Mangina, commenting on Revelation 21:22-24:

The vision reaches its surprising climax in John’s report of something he does not see, namely, a temple. The city has no need of a temple, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” Their radiance is such that even the illumination provided by sun and stars is superfluous. Special sacraments are no longer necessary, because in the new eon “all truth will be openly and perfectly revealed” (Aquinas, Summa theologiae 3.61.4 §1). The life of the city will not point to God, it will be in God. But John’s remark that “[the city’s] lamp is the Lamb” permits us to say something St. Thomas does not: in the age to come, the vision of God will be mediated through the risen, glorified flesh of Jesus. The heavenly city is not the end of the church, for the church is simply God’s people. It is, however, the end of religion, the demarcation of sacred space from profane space and liturgical time from ordinary time, for the purpose of making present the absent god.

But perhaps the most unexpected thing of all in the new Jerusalem comes in the lines that follow: “By [the city’s] light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.”

How did these kings get here? Are these the same kings who consorted with Babylon and participated in the beast’s warfare against the Lamb? While the kings in the present passage do not seem to be inhabitants of the city, they are evidently welcome in it. This scene, in fact, represents the eschatological fulfillment of Christ’s identity as “the ruler of kings on earth” (1:5). The Messiah rules not only over his people Israel, but over the goyim. Christ’s exercise of power radically differs from that of the earthly city, as Bernd Wannenwetsch comments: “Rome/Babylon’s wealth was extorted from all the world, in the New City the kings of the earth are said to bring their glory into it—of their own free will.”

©2010 by Joseph L. Mangina. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Second Sunday of Easter

This excerpt comes from Revelation (BTCB) by Joseph L. Mangina, commenting on Revelation 1:4-8:

The words “grace . . . and peace” begin this process. Grace and peace! These are words we do not often associate with the Apocalypse. Many would say that there is more divine wrath than divine mercy here, more violence and bloodshed than peace. Nevertheless, I think we need to take John at his word. Even if the usage is a borrowing from the conventions of early Christian letterwriting, it says something important.

John does not write with hostile intentions toward the churches. He is but an ambassador of the one who is the source of all grace and peace and who—in another performative utterance—bestows these gifts upon the listener. Grace and peace are the very content of this apocalyptic irruption into our world.

This ultimate sender of the letter is now named. In other New Testament letters, such as Paul’s, the formula “grace and peace” would be followed by “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” These expected words do not appear, however. Instead, John offers greetings:

from him who is and who was and who is to come,

and from the seven spirits who are before his throne,

and from Jesus Christ

the faithful11 witness,

the firstborn of the dead,

and the ruler of kings on earth. (1:4–5)

A moment ago we were hearing a letter being read aloud, John offering greetings to the churches. We now learn that John is only penultimately the source of this communication. The real source of the letter is God. Even this turns out to be more complicated than we might think, for alongside God we also hear of Jesus and of the mysterious “seven spirits.” Each of these three elements, in turn, is internally complex.

The Father is named with reference to his relation to present, past, and future; Jesus is called witness, firstborn, and ruler of kings; and the spirits are seven rather than simply one. John has not simply expanded the Pauline greeting, he has deepened and enriched it in puzzling ways. The first thing we notice is a proliferation of threes. Beyond the ones just cited, the ascription of Christ shifts into a doxology (1:5b) that yields three further sets of three:

him who loves us

has freed us from our sins by his blood

has made us a kingdom

he is coming with the clouds

every eye will see him

all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him

All this is rhetorically powerful. The number three is a universal element in myth and folklore. In fairly tales there are always three sons, three trials, three rings of power. But there is more than simply folklore going on here. As the doxological language and the liturgical “amen” (1:6–7) suggest, we find ourselves in the atmosphere of early Christian worship, an eschatological atmosphere permeated by a longing for Christ’s future coming. At the heart of Christian worship is the God who is one, but one by being three—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Worship is the primordial home of the Christian confession of God as Trinity.

As Robert Jenson remarks, the “habit of trinitarian naming is universal through the life of the church. How far back it goes we cannot make out. . . . It appears to have been an immediate reflex of believers’ experience of God. It is in liturgy, when we do not talk about God but to and for him, that we need and use his name.”

©2010 by Joseph L. Mangina. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

“Seven Things Revelation Is” by Joseph L. Mangina

This is an original post by Joseph L. Mangina, author of Revelation (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible).

This is a follow-up to last week’s piece on “Seven Things Revelation Is Not.”

Joseph L. Mangina (PhD, Yale University) is professor of systematic theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. He is the editor of Pro Ecclesia, serves on the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue commission for Canada, and is the author of two books on the thought of Karl Barth.

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Having explored some of the things Revelation is not, let’s take a look at what it is. In the spirit of Revelation, once I again have seven items:

Seven Things Revelation Is

1. A terrible book. Terrible, in the old-fashioned sense of terror-inducing. It makes for hard reading. In the course of writing my commentary, I inevitably arrived at chapter 9, where I encountered the following:

And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit. He opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft. Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them. (Rev. 9:1–6 ESV)

Immediately I understood why some Christians avoid this book of the Bible, and why others are perversely attracted to it. If nothing else, Revelation is an exercise in “reality therapy.” The world it describes is not the world as we would like it to be. It shows the world as it is—beset by sin and ugliness and destruction. As a middle-class Christian, I know that my great temptation is to want the world to be “nice”; Revelation does not afford me that luxury. It is a revelation (precisely) of things as they really are and as they will one day be. And it is a revelation that even the world of horrors is really God’s world. If there is any comfort in the passage I’ve just cited, it consists in the little word “given”—the locusts “were given power….”

Given by whom? We need hardly ask. The Apocalypse often uses the passive voice like that to denote divine action. It is God alone who is in charge of history, God alone who judges evil, just as it is God alone who makes things right. Even in the terrors of history we can be confident that God is at work, albeit by what Luther called his “left” or hidden hand.

Revelatoin

2. A beautiful book. The flip side of the terrors of the Apocalypse are its glories. It is a gorgeous book, filled with images that have fed the Christian imagination across the centuries: the heavenly worship around the rainbow-encircled throne of God (chaps. 4–5); the white-robed army of martyrs who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14); the woman clothed with the sun and with the moon at her feet, an image at once of Israel, the church, and the Virgin Mary (chap. 12); and not least, the new Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (21:2 ESV). Nor should we forget the music of the Apocalypse, the hymns and songs that invite the hearer to participate in the praise of God. All this is a double tribute: to the Creator God who is Beauty itself and to the beauties of the world he has made.

3. A prophetic book. Richard Bauckham wrote a study of Revelation titled The Climax of Prophecy (T&T Clark, 1993). This gets it just about right. Even if John did not refer to his book as a prophecy (which he does several times; cf. 1:3; 22:7, 10, 18–19), his visions clearly stand in the line of Israel’s prophets. Like the prophets of the old covenant, John is sent to speak the word of God to his people Israel at a particular juncture of their history—in this case, the messianic age that concludes Israel’s and the world’s history. Some episodes in the work are virtual replays of events in the earlier prophets, e.g., Daniel’s vision of four terrible beasts or Ezekiel’s eating the scroll and measuring the temple.

4. An apocalyptic book. This may seem perfectly redundant; after all, we get our word apocalypse from the Greek name of Revelation. But it is still worth underscoring. An apocalypse, we might say, is a particular form of prophecy in which the visionary element predominates. All prophets are assigned the task of speaking the Lord’s word. A specifically apocalyptic prophet receives the word in the form of visions: “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches” (Rev. 1:11 ESV, emphasis added). For this reason Revelation bears a special kinship to “late” Israelite prophecy (Ezekiel, Zechariah, Daniel), as well as to extracanonical Jewish works like 2 Esdras. Here I will make a suggestion: that the more purely eschatological a prophetic work is, the more purely visionary will be its form.

5. A book for the church. Revelation is addressed to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia—Anatolia, the western edge of today’s Turkey. Already the church fathers read this as symbolic: the seven churches represent the whole church, seven being the number of fullness. That fullness, however, encompasses time as well as space; our churches are part of the same community that John—but then also God, Christ, and the Spirit—addresses in this work. The Apocalypse was written for the whole community of God’s people, and it is to be read that way, not as a private coded message for a spiritual elite (see the first point in my previous post on “Seven Things Revelation Is Not”).

Revelation being a book for the church, it is something of a scandal that so little of it appears in our Christian lectionaries. The irony is especially acute with regard to the letters to the seven churches in chapters 2–3. If we never hear these texts in the context of worship, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to hear of our own apostasies, be chastened but then also comforted by the word of Christ, be encouraged in the face of evil, and hear the eschatological promises given to “the one who conquers.” Recovering an ecclesial hermeneutic for the Apocalypse is an ongoing task of scriptural interpretation in our time.

6. A liturgical book—and therefore a political book. This seems incongruous to us moderns, who are used to thinking of religion as essentially a private act. In our society there is no formal difference between deciding to go to church and deciding to go bowling. But for the ancients, matters of cult were tied to matters of political organization—and with good reason. “Whom or what shall we worship?” and “how shall the city, or state, or empire be organized?”—these are but forms of a single question. In the historical setting of the Apocalypse, the great question was the church’s relation to Roman politics and economic order, powerfully symbolized by the cult of the emperor. By lighting a pinch of incense before the emperor’s image, one confessed him (and implicitly the order of which he was at the center) to be divine. Many Christians—certainly not all—refused to do this. Much of the Apocalypse makes sense as the embodiment of this refusal. A key to the book’s politics is the blood of the martyrs.

The flip side of rejecting idolatry, however, is the positive expression of devotion to Israel’s Lord as the one true God. This is what makes the Apocalypse a powerfully liturgical work. It is shot through with images of worship. It is filled with hymns, songs, prayers, incense, movement. Chapters 4 and 5, in particular, present a kaleidoscope of liturgy. All this is, once again, a kind of politics though not of the utilitarian sort. Worship isn’t ordered to some extrinsic end but expresses the truth about God, ourselves, and the world. Worship is simply what is good for us, because God himself is all goodness. I think we can safely say that if today’s church had more ballsy forms of worship, the world might notice that we Christians actually have something quite interesting to say.

7. A book about Jesus. A common failing of novice journalists is “burying the lede,” i.e., waiting too long to tell your reader what the story is about. John does not have this problem. It is ironic that people search for the coded meaning of Revelation, when the book’s theme is announced in the opening line: “The revelation [apocalypse] of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must happen soon” (1:1 NIV).

In Greek as in English, that “of” is ambiguous. The Apocalypse is both the revealing of Jesus and Jesus’s own act of revealing. Of course it is also the revelation of God, received in the imaginative power of the Spirit; Revelation is a trinitarian as well as a christocentric work. But Christ is the key to the work, the key who opens the “door” to all the visions (cf. 4:1).

You can read my commentary to see how this works out in detail. Let me conclude, though, by briefly recapitulating the previous six points, to suggest how Christ is the key to these as well:

(1) While there is much in John’s visions to terrify us, we can trust that God is not ultimately against humanity: at the absolute center of John’s world is “the one who loves us,” the Lamb who suffers violence at our hands.

(2) The work of Christ in Revelation is not narrowly individualistic but rather aimed at the redemption precisely of God’s creation and of all that is good, true, and beautiful within it; see the heavenly city in chapters 21–22.

(3) As a prophet, John is given to speak the word of God. But Christ is that Word (cf. 19:11). Note the convergence here with the Fourth Gospel.

(4) As already mentioned, what is “apocalypsed” in Revelation is Christ himself—his divine identity, his death as triumph over the forces of evil, his coming again to redeem his own. Here, I’d like to enter a small but important correction to my Brazos commentary. For reasons that now elude me, I don’t emphasize nearly as much as I should have the way the worship scene in chapter 5 affirms the divinity of Christ: God and the Lamb are honored in a single act of devotion. Worshiping Jesus—what an extraordinary thing for a group of first-century Jews to be doing. Very good on this theme is Richard Bauckham’s The Theology of the Book of Revelation. I suppose I didn’t feel it necessary to restate what Bauckham had already said so well, but clearly, this was falling down on my job as a commentator!

(5) It is Jesus Christ who, through John’s visions, addresses the church—not just in the late first century but today. Both the promises and the warnings of the Apocalypse are directed to the Christian community. It is not a prediction about the future directed to the world at large.

(6) As Christ is at the center of Revelation’s worship, so he is at the center of its politics. The book may be read as posing the following question: what would it look like if a community worshiped not the powers of the present age but the power that God self-revealed in his Son Jesus? What sort of politics would honor blood spilled not in military conquest but in martyrdom? What would it mean for a people to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4)?

I hope these musings have whetted the reader’s appetite for the Apocalypse. As John devoured the scroll, which tasted sweet as honey though it made his stomach bitter (10:9), may you know the sweetness of the book he wrote. Take, eat, delight. I’d be gratified if my Brazos commentary aided your appreciation of John’s act of witness.

“Seven Things Revelation Is Not” by Joseph L. Mangina

This is an original post by Joseph L. Mangina, author of Revelation (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible).

Joseph L. Mangina (PhD, Yale University) is professor of systematic theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. He is the editor of Pro Ecclesia, serves on the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue commission for Canada, and is the author of two books on the thought of Karl Barth.

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Revelatoin

The book of Revelation (also known as the Apocalypse) is a constant source of both fascination and fear among Christians. In North America, the book is likely to be identified with the dispensationalism of Timothy LaHaye’s Left Behind series. It is therefore often treated as being off-limits in mainline churches.

This is unfortunate. To the extent that we distance ourselves from Revelation, we hand it over to eccentric uses; even worse, we miss out on its real glories. In the next two posts I will make some comments aimed at helping us overcome our aversion to the Apocalypse.

Today I will discuss “Seven Things Revelation Is Not”; next time I will turn to “Seven Things Revelation Is.” The division is a bit artificial, so don’t be surprised to find some affirmations in the midst of the negations and vice versa. I hope to whet the reader’s appetite for exploring Revelation on his or her own, perhaps in company with my Brazos commentary (Joseph Mangina, Revelation, Brazos 2010).

Seven Things Revelation Is Not

1. A code, cipher, or secret message. The tendency to read Revelation as an esoteric book—the ultimate insiders’ text—has a very long history. The book is filled with mysterious images and symbols. It is natural to want to know what these symbols “stand for.” With this approach to Revelation, interpretation will be a matter of wresting a discrete, consistent, and controllable meaning from each image. There is just enough of this reading strategy in the book itself to encourage us in this view; see for example 17:9-10.

I cannot stress too strongly, however, that as an overall reading strategy this form of interpretation misfires and will cause us to miss almost everything that is important about the book. The Apocalypse is visionary literature. Its symbols are polyvalent, pointing in many different directions at once. To take the most famous example, it is tempting to believe that when John wrote 666—the infamous “number of the beast”—he intended the emperor Nero. Historically speaking that is extremely likely. But as any postmodern literary critic will tell you, texts are simply not that stable—much less so a text of which God or the Spirit is the author! Revelation is less interested in information than in transformation. Rather than looking for a meaning “behind” the text, we should let it draw us into its powerful vision of a world created, judged, and redeemed by God.

2. A book exclusively about the future. This point follows from the previous one. While Revelation does, indeed, offer a glimpse of God’s final consummation of all things, it would not have us speculating about the future. John wants us to “remember the End”—Travis Kroeker’s evocative term for apocalyptic vision in the works of Dostoevsky—precisely so that the church may live more faithfully and courageously in the present. This is true whether that “present” is in AD 113 or 2013.

3. Chiefly a response to persecution. We know that there has been at least one martyr in the churches John is addressing (Rev. 2:13), and he clearly expects that there will be more (2:10; 7:14). It is therefore easy to assume that the purpose of the book is to offer comfort and reassurance to communities subject to Roman persecution. This fits a common view of apocalyptic writing as a literature of the dispossessed.

My advice to the reader is to take all this with a large grain of salt. On the one hand, notice that John writes to seven churches marked by notable differences: if Smyrna is under pressure, Laodicea is all too pleased with itself (“you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered,’” Rev. 3:17 NRSV). Like churches today, John’s communities inhabit a wide range of social locations and strategies of resistance/negotiation/accommodation to their host culture.

But even more crucial is the question of agency. While the “kings of the earth” (a recurrent image in the Apocalypse) exercise real and terrible forms of power, there is never any question that God is the ultimate Power with whom humans have to reckon. This is what John wants his readers to grasp. It is God—the LORD of Israel—who determines history, not the Romans.

4. A simple temporal sequence. Already in the early history of the church, attentive readers of Revelation noticed an odd thing: the book repeats itself. The seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls are less a linear sequence of events than a dizzying spiral, a vision of the (singular) End narrated from a variety of perspectives. The technical name for this is “recapitulation.”

This is not to say there is no drama, no “story,” in the Apocalypse. But the drama must be taken on its own terms. It is must not be assimilated to earthly, empirical history. Again recall that John’s intention—or the Spirit’s intention through John—is less to inform than to transform.

5. A warrant for violence. It is well to be honest: many of the events described in Revelation are terrifying. Many readers struggle to reconcile the awful imagery of death, mayhem, and destruction with the God of love. I will have more to say about this in my next post.

Nevertheless, while terrible things happen in Revelation, the author never says, “Go out and do terrible things.” The question of agency again looms large. It is God’s love, God’s judgment, God’s vindication that stand at the center of attention. If there is a consistent command given to the church, it is simply to practice “patient endurance,” a kind of creative waiting and suffering in trust that God will set things right (cf. Rev. 1:9; 2:2; 13:10; 14:12). To read the book as a warrant for any human exacting of vengeance on enemies is simply false.

6. An outlier in the canon of Scripture. We are prone to draw a distinction between the teaching of Jesus, say, or Pauline soteriology (theological comfort food for Protestants), and the “weird apocalyptic stuff” in writings like Daniel and Revelation. But there is far more slippage than we like to think. Mark’s Jesus is a clearly apocalyptic figure, while Paul writes of cosmic transformation and speaks of Christ as the “man from heaven” (Rom. 8; 1 Cor. 15). Nor are these convergences accidental: Mark, Paul, and John the Seer are all rooted in the apocalyptic soil of Israel’s faith. It is for this reason that the great Anglican theologian Austin Farrer called Revelation “a rebirth of images,” referring to the way in which John takes up themes and symbols from the Old Testament. What he sees is new but at the same time very old.

7. A book with a clear, easily summarized message. This goes back to what I said earlier about reading Revelation as a coded text. If the book is a cipher, we can figure it out, determine its “meaning” once for all, and be done with it. In this approach the text itself ironically becomes dispensable. Fortunately Revelation doesn’t work like that. It is an act of testimony, an act of witness by one who claims to speak the very Word of God—in short, a prophet.

The proper understanding of Revelation, then, begins with listening to this Word. This is a theme I will take up in my next post, on the “Seven Things Revelation Is.”

Behind the Book: Joseph L. Mangina on Revelation

Today Joseph L. Mangina shares why he wrote Revelation in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series.

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“‘Write What You See in a Book’: How I Came to Write a Commentary on Revelation” by Joseph L. Mangina

I never intended to become a biblical scholar. When I received my doctorate in 1994, I expected to teach and write systematic theology and not engage in “exegesis”; exegesis was what the folks in the biblical department did. And this was at Yale, a supposed bastion of “postcritical” interpretation of Scripture.

Here’s how my plans changed. I was on sabbatical at the Center of Theological Inquiry (CTI) in 2002, facing a blank computer screen and a dearth of ideas. The project I was working on was going nowhere fast. So I dropped into Robert Jenson’s office one day to ask his advice; “Jens” was the chief theological advisor at CTI in those days.

After offering sympathy on the writer’s block, he said, “You keep going on about church practices—tell me a specific church practice you’d like to write about.”

“The Eucharist,” I said, without thinking very much about it. He went on, “Now name a biblical book.” To this day I don’t know why, but I instantly responded, “The book of Revelation.

“All right,” Jens said. “Now all you have to do is write a paper on the Eucharist in Revelation.”

That became the paper I wrote and presented to my CTI colleagues that term. I discovered there was a surprising amount to write about, given the prevalence of liturgical and eucharistic imagery in the Apocalypse. This was fun, I thought. Before my term at CTI was over I had parlayed the paper into a full-fledged proposal for a book, not on simply the Eucharist but on the Church in the Apocalypse. I sent it to Rodney Clapp, who signed me up for a contract with Brazos. The book was to be called Followers of the Lamb, the title of a rousing nineteenth-century Shaker hymn.

But it was not to be. A curious thing happened as I worked on that book. When I approached the topic of the church in Revelation in a purely conceptual way, the material died in my hands; I was using Scripture rather than reading it. It was far more satisfying when I simply sat with the text, reading it—or, appropriately for Revelation, listening to it—chapter by chapter, verse by verse.

Then one day Ephraim Radner dropped by my office and mentioned that Rusty Reno was looking for someone to write on Revelation for the Brazos series. I offered the feeble excuse that “I don’t know how to write a commentary.” This lasted about a day and a half, as the realization sank in that I was already writing the commentary. Then I signed up.

As it turns out, probably none of us who have written Brazos commentaries knew in advance quite what we were doing. Everyone has come up with their own solution to the problem. If the series has done nothing else, it has helped to pose the fundamental questions, what is Holy Scripture, and what does it mean for us to interpret it?

Before sitting down to write, I sought advice and counsel from various quarters. Perhaps the most helpful advice was a passing remark by Telford Work (he probably doesn’t remember saying this). Telford was answering the criticism that theological commentary isn’t real exegesis, since it adds things that aren’t really there in the text of Scripture. His answer, as I recall, was something like, “Of course it’s not in the text. It’s a commentary; it’s what we say in response to what we hear in Scripture.” And this, of course, is true whether one is writing a standard historical-critical commentary—whatever that might be!—or a theological commentary à la Brazos, or for that matter any of the commentaries, sermons, and marginal notes on Scripture throughout the tradition.

I found Telford’s remark liberating. Of course, like all freedom under the gospel, the freedom of the Christian commentator has to take shape as obedience. Even if the words were my words, these were answerable to the Word of God in Holy Scripture. I couldn’t just say anything I like—couldn’t just “make it up,” as the saying goes.

The critics of theological interpretation of Scripture are right that eisegesis, like sin, is always lurking at the door. They are wrong if they imagine that there is a method that will save us by guaranteeing fidelity to was in der Schrift steht (“what stands in Scripture”).

For myself, I was genuinely grateful for the labors of modern Revelation scholars like Henry Swete, Paul Minear, G. B. Caird, Richard Bauckham, Christopher Rowland, Leonard Thompson, David Barr, Eugene Boring, and Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, along with many others.

I will cheerfully admit to being an absolute junkie for historical information. I was happy to be instructed on the “year of three emperors” (AD 69), the rumors of Nero’s return (Rev. 13:3?), and the location—so archaeologists tell us—of the famously lukewarm church of Laodicea halfway between a hot and a cold spring (Rev. 3:16).

The commentators I gravitated toward, however, were the ones who were able to use this information to explicate the theme or subject matter of Revelation, its urgent message, which is….

But why should I tell you everything in the first blog post? In my next posting, I will talk about some common misconceptions concerning the Apocalypse—“seven things Revelation isn’t”—before going on to discuss some of the things it is.

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Joseph L. Mangina  (PhD, Yale University) is professor of systematic theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. He is the editor of Pro Ecclesia, serves on the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue commission for Canada, and is the author of two books on the thought of Karl Barth.

For more information on Revelation, click here.

Lectionary Reflection for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

This excerpt comes from Revelation (BTCB) by Joseph L. Mangina, commenting on Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21:

Worship is the place where the church’s confidence in Christ’s defeat of the powers merges most clearly with longing for his coming again. The entire Apocalypse may heard as the voice of Jesus.

Now in the closing lines, the church’s own voice is heard, together with that of the Spirit: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’ And let the one who hears say ‘Come!’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price!” (Rev. 22:17; cf. Isa. 55:1).

The cry of “come!” is threefold. The first utterance is that of the bride, anticipatorily embodied in the worshiping assembly, crying out in expectation of the bridegroom’s coming. The terrors and beauties disclosed in John’s visions serve only to heighten longing for the arrival of that day.

The second utterance is that of the individual worshiper, who is invited to speak with the bride, and indeed as the bride. No one who has heard the Apocalypse and is willing to “keep the words of the prophecy” should be excluded from the feast. To invert Bonhoeffer’s famous saying, we could say that while grace is not cheap it is free—as free as the waters of life, which flows from the throne of God and the Lamb to anyone who is thirsty.

This third member in the triad does not bid the listener to say “come!” but simply to come, to slake one’s thirst at the waters that cannot be bought.

Revelation is a book that draws many sorts of boundaries: between the church and the world, between the holy and the unholy, between the life appropriate to God’s people and the life of Babylon.

The urgent call to holiness of life is reiterated in these closing verses (22:11, 14-15). Yet like the gates of the city, the doors of the church are or should be fundamentally open. All are invited not to “come as they are,” but to come as the bride.

John would have been bemused at the notion that seriousness about witness and seriousness about Christian holiness are somehow in competition. In fact, they demand each other.

 

©2010 by Joseph L. Mangina. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

This excerpt comes from Revelation (BTCB) by Joseph L. Mangina, commenting on Revelation 21:1-6:

The vision in Rev. 21 opens with a great divine act of re-creation. As only God can create, calling suns and stars, water and land into existence at the beginning, so only God can restore, bringing into being a new world in which his will for his creatures is fully realized.

Apocalypse recapitulates Genesis. A fresh start is made. The first heaven and the first earth are not said to be destroyed, like death and hades in the previous chapter. John simply says that they “passed away” (apēltham). “The sea was no more,” not because the ocean as such is cursed, but because the sea in Israel’s imagination represents chaos, darkness, the deep. Now chaos yields to cosmos, disorder to peace, death to life.

God does this. It is not the outcome of any human scientific or technological achievement. The new city comes “down out of heaven from God,” a sheer miracle, a gift apocalyptically bestowed at the end of history and not the outcome of history itself. The unmistakable apocalyptic signature here is the word idou (“behold”), uttered first by a “loud voice from the throne” (21:3) and repeated by “he who was seated on the throne” (21:5).

his unambiguous act of divine speech is the first such we have heard since 1:8. Idou invites us not to act but to see, not to perform but to watch in awe, not to take action but to rejoice, welcoming the city’s gracious manifestation among us. . . .

The goal of all this is the establishing of communion: “Behold, the dwelling place [skēnē] of God is with man. He will dwell with them [skēnōsei met’ autōn], and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (21:3). The language is drawn from the law (Lev. 26:12) and the prophets (Ezek. 27:27), reminding us that the people of this God can only be Israel and not some generic “humanity.”

If grace does not destroy nature, still less does the new creation annul God’s covenant with Abraham! The language bespeaks a covenantal sense of mutuality, God with his people, the people with their God. The long history that reaches from Moses to David to Jeremiah and beyond is not undone.

Yet just as in the new creation imagery, John seems to envisage a certain return to the beginning: thus the image of the desert tabernacle, the skēnē, the tent of the divine presence. The tape is being rewound, past the historical Jerusalem with its compromised history, past even the settlement of the land, to the time of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. It is as though God’s new dwelling with Israel will combine the splendor of life in the city with the simplicity of life in the wilderness, when, for Jeremiah anyway, the bride of YHWH was still faithful to her spouse (Jer. 2:1-2).

But skēnē is also the language of incarnation. It is the term John the Evangelist uses to speak of the Son of God’s “tenting” or “tabernacling” in human flesh (John 1:14). Not, of course, that the heavenly city is identical with Christ’s historical sojourn in the flesh. But the city inhabits the space of divine-human communion he has established.

The “dwelling of God is with man,” first and decisively in Christ himself, then in the church so far as it is joined to his divine-human, life-giving person.

 

©2010 by Joseph L. Mangina. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

This excerpt comes from Revelation (BTCB) by Joseph L. Mangina, commenting on Revelation 7:9-17:

As in the scene of the Lamb’s presentation in Rev. 5, so here too the meaning of the vision is brought out by a dialogue between John and an elder. The elder asks John: “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”

In what amounts to a polite confession of ignorance John replies, “Sir, you know.” The elder then identifies this white-robed army as “the ones coming out of the great tribulation,” those who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

“Tribulation” (thlipsis) is one of the great themes of the Apocalypse, as we have already seen in the discussion of the seven churches and the seven seals. The present vision invites us to penetrate more deeply into the meaning of this key term.

If, up to this point, the meaning of thlipsis has been centered on suffering or even punishment (cf. 2:9-10), now we see that the distress of God’s people is in fact their passage from death into life. Their suffering is a cleansing, a clothing, perhaps even an investiture in office corresponding to the Lamb’s own.

By virtue of his high-priestly work they themselves have become a kingdom of priests, standing “before the throne of God, and serv[ing] him day and night in his temple” (7:15). The Lamb’s death thus marks the birth pangs of the new creation, so that to be his follower and witness is to participate in the life he brings.

We now step back to examine the two parts of the vision synoptically. This is a vision of the people of God, the saints; but is either of these groups to be identified with the church? We might well doubt it. One of the more curious features of the Apocalypse is the complete absence of the word ekklēsia in the main body of the work, between the close of the letters to the churches (3:22) and the concluding lines (22:16). . . .

As the oracles to the church indicate, the ekklēsia is indeed the audience of Revelation, and in a quite literal sense the congregations are hearing the book read aloud. The prophecy does not, however, simply reproduce their empirical ecclesiality, answering history (the time of the old eon) with more history. The churches are being show a novum, the new thing that is coming, life on the far side of the great tribulation that is coming over all the world.

In this sense we might say that the subject matter of the vision is not the church present and visible, but the eschatological people of God. The vision is not of what the churches are, but of what they are called to become.

 

©2010 by Joseph L. Mangina. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Last Sunday after Pentecost

From Revelation (BTCB) by Joseph L. Mangina, commenting on Revelation 1:4b-8:

The climax of this sequence occurs when, for the first time in Revelation, we hear the voice of God himself, speaking through the mouth of the prophet: “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.'” This act of divine self-naming brings God dangerously close. Worship is dangerous—and always one step removed from blasphemy.

In presuming to speak for God, we easily forget that it is not our task to make an absent God present. As the Creator, God is present, closer to creatures than they are to themselves. God is even more intensely present in the person of his Son, whose glory we have just affirmed.

The phrase “Alpha and Omega” echoes the “is, was, is to come” at 1:4, but gives a slightly different twist to that formula. Here the emphasis falls not so much on God’s transcendence over time as on his perfect life and fullness, exceeding creation even as he embraces it, the way the letters Alpha and Omega bracket the Greek alphabet.

It is also possible that these letters suggest the divine name. It is frequently pointed out that a common Greek abbreviation for the name was ІΩΑ, which might have suggested the idea of using Alpha and Omega, Α and Ω, as a cipher for the Tetragrammaton. The ancients were fond of finding mysterious meanings in letters and numbers. That is why the decoding approach to Revelation cannot be completely discount, even if we should avoid making a fetish out of it.

 

©2010 by Joseph L. Mangina. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.