This Advent, in the Year of the Great Pandemic 2020, it seems appropriate to look at The Apocalypse – that is, The Revelation of John. This is the fourth of twenty-six short reflections.
The Book of Revelation is a constructed text. While emerging out of a spiritual experience, the written text shows a definite structure and influences that were both ancient and contemporary (much as Julian of Norwich (1343? – 1416?) had a spiritual experience that produced, after many years of contemplation, in the Revelations of Divine Love).
One of those influences was Paul and his letters; by the time John had his visions the letters of Paul were already circulating in western Anatolia. Like Paul, John is not very interested in the earthly life of Jesus. Like Paul, he calls himself a slave of God, and not a prophet. Like Paul, he is in conflict with other Christians, and is subversive of the Roman Empire. Like Paul, he derives his mission directly from Jesus. And, like Paul, he is oriented towards the Day of the Lord. So, not surprisingly, like Paul’s Letters, Revelation is cast in the form of a letter to seven churches – although it is hardly a conventional epistle.
So, as it is like a letter, after the brief introduction in the first three verses of chapter 1, we have a salutation from John and Jesus:
4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia:
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
He then describes the circumstances of his vision, which is both auditory and visual:
9 I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”
12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest . . .
Chapters 2 and 3 are particular messages for each of the seven churches in western Anatolia, and each one bears the same structure. This may be evidence of oral preaching by John, as structures such as found here assist in the memorization and delivery of oral address. On paper it looks repetitive, but when delivered orally and hear by ear, it builds up in power.
Chapter 4 is a vision of heaven, and in chapter 5 is introduced seven seals on a scroll. Seals were used in ancient times to authenticate not only documents, but shipments of goods such as wine and olive oil. One could only read the scroll or gain access to the goods by breaking the seal, so they were an effective means of making sure that one had tampered with them.
After the seven seals are opened we have seven trumpets in chapters 8 and 9, and after a multitude of visions and portents, chapter 15 has seven golden bowls. The end of chapter 20, all of Chapter 21, and most of chapter 22 introduces the vision of the new heavens and the new earth, and the New Jerusalem. Chapter 22 finishes off with something that looks like the end of a letter.
The construction is not absolute – the centre of the book is a bit messy in terms of what follow what. You can go online and find a plethora of diagrams outlining the “chiasmic” structure of the book, or the different section, but to a certain degree all of these seem to me a bit forced. In truth, the impression one gets is that John started off with a definite structure in mind and then kind of got carried away with digressions from that format. It might be better to say that there are structures in The Book of Revelation, mnemonic and literary devices on which John hangs his message.
Tomorrow I will discuss the seven churches, and what we might say about them.