The hairier this thing gets the more we want to descend into allegory symbolism and subjective interpretation. The author of Revelation feeds this in us: in my vision. As if he is frightened we might take this stuff as literal.
While I’m post-modern enough to not see this stuff as having one and only one objectively determined sense, neither do I think the whole enchiladas is up for grabs. If Revelation can mean anything, then it means nothing. And if it means nothing it stops being text. This writing, for weal or woe is trying to communicate. It exists to inform and to transform and so the objective is determining the how the author might want us read this, how we might live differently should the author succeed in his purposes.
So where to begin. Six of the seven seals are broken and all manner of signs an portents are loosed upon the world. Are these magickal seals, the means of our destruction? Is God author of conquering armies, wars, famine, and death by sword, by famine, by plague and through wild beasts?
Or we can think of the scroll as a kind of “legal document”, a divine decree that will manifest that meaning. A Roman will, for example, needed to be sealed by seven witnesses. The writing on the outside may be a summary/description of the contents within, but their actual fulfillment demands a public reading.
I think this is a helpful opening here. Firstly, these seals are not the content of the scroll. They are the preamble to the content. A King’s will is about to be read, an edict empowering his heirs, establishing ruling structures, distributing wealth, gifts and power. The pretenders for the throne gather their armies to seize control. the reader of the scroll, the gathered assembly, knows this and calls out to them, “Come!” Do your worst.
The pretenders are divided against each other but united in purpose, they want to determine the outcome and they are prepared to kill to get it. And with the sixth seal broken open, we see how vulnerable, how impotent they are before the opening of the scroll.
Now this is my take. Is it any better than yours? That would depend on what we mean by better. It would depend on why we read and more importantly, why we try to interpret.
It seesm to me, the key questions here are 1) Are the Four Horsemen agents of God or part of the powers and principalities aligned against God and his people? and 2) Whose side are we on?
To upack these questions we need to look to our own reactions to the text and explore why we react the way we do. What is in our psyche or our history that responds this way? What is in the text that pushes those buttons?
Then, in my vision, I saw the Lamb break one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures shout in a voice like thunder, ‘Come!’ Immediately I saw a white horse appear, and its rider was holding a bow; he was given a victor’s crown and he went away, to go from victory to victory.
When he broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature shout, ‘Come!’ And out came another horse, bright red, and its rider was given this duty: to take away peace from the earth and set people killing each other. He was given a huge sword.
When he broke the third seal, I heard the third living creature shout, ‘Come!’ Immediately I saw a black horse appear, and its rider was holding a pair of scales; and I seemed to hear a voice shout from among the four living creatures and say, ‘A day’s wages for a quart of corn, and a day’s wages for three quarts of barley, but do not tamper with the oil or the wine.’
When he broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature shout, ‘Come!’ Immediately I saw another horse appear, deathly pale, and its rider was called Death, and Hades followed at its heels. They were given authority over a quarter of the earth, to kill by the sword, by famine, by plague and through wild beasts.
When he broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of all the people who had been killed on account of the Word of God, for witnessing to it. They shouted in a loud voice, ‘Holy, true Master, how much longer will you wait before you pass sentence and take vengeance for our death on the inhabitants of the earth?’ Each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to be patient a little longer, until the roll was completed of their fellow-servants and brothers who were still to be killed as they had been.
In my vision, when he broke the sixth seal, there was a violent earthquake and the sun went as black as coarse sackcloth; the moon turned red as blood all over, and the stars of the sky fell onto the earth like figs dropping from a fig tree when a high wind shakes it; the sky disappeared like a scroll rolling up and all the mountains and islands were shaken from their places. Then all the kings of the earth, the governors and the commanders, the rich people and the men of influence, the whole population, slaves and citizens, hid in caverns and among the rocks of the mountains. They said to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us away from the One who sits on the throne and from the retribution of the Lamb. For the Great Day of his retribution has come, and who can face it?’
I saw that in the right hand of the One sitting on the throne there was a scroll that was written on back and front and was sealed with seven seals. Then I saw a powerful angel who called with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?‘ But there was no one, in heaven or on the earth or under the earth, who was able to open the scroll and read it. I wept bitterly because nobody could be found to open the scroll and read it, but one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed, and so he will open the scroll and its seven seals.‘
Then I saw, in the middle of the throne with its four living creatures and the circle of the elders, a Lamb standing that seemed to have been sacrificed; it had seven horns, and it had seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits that God has sent out over the whole world. The Lamb came forward to take the scroll from the right hand of the One sitting on the throne, and when he took it, the four living creatures prostrated themselves before him and with them the twenty-four elders; each one of them was holding a harp and had a golden bowl full of incense which are the prayers of the saints. They sang a new hymn:
You are worthy to take the scroll and to break its seals, because you were sacrificed, and with your blood you bought people for God of every race, language, people and nation and made them a line of kings and priests for God, to rule the world.
In my vision, I heard the sound of an immense number of angels gathered round the throne and the living creatures and the elders; there were ten thousand times ten thousand of them and thousands upon thousands, loudly chanting:
Worthy is the Lamb that was sacrificed to receive power, riches, wisdom, strength, honour, glory and blessing.
Then I heard all the living things in creation — everything that lives in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and in the sea, crying:
To the One seated on the throne and to the Lamb, be all praise, honour, glory and power, for ever and ever.
And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen‘; and the elders prostrated themselves to worship.
Then, in my vision, I saw a door open in heaven and heard the same voice speaking to me, the voice like a trumpet, saying, “Come up here: I will show you what is to take place in the future.”
With that, I fell into ecstasy and I saw a throne standing in heaven, and the One who was sitting on the throne, and the One sitting there looked like a diamond and a ruby. There was a rainbow encircling the throne, and this looked like an emerald. Round the throne in a circle were twenty-four thrones, and on them twenty-four elders sitting, dressed in white robes with golden crowns on their heads. Flashes of lightning were coming from the throne, and the sound of peals of thunder, and in front of the throne there were seven flaming lamps burning, the seven Spirits of God.
In front of the throne was a sea as transparent as crystal. In the middle of the throne and around it, were four living creatures all studded with eyes, in front and behind. The first living creature was like a lion, the second like a bull, the third living creature had a human face, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was studded with eyes all the way round as well as inside; and day and night they never stopped singing:
Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God, the Almighty; who was, and is and is to come.
Every time the living creatures glorified and honoured and gave thanks to the One sitting on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders prostrated themselves before him to worship the One who lives for ever and ever, and threw down their crowns in front of the throne, saying:
You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you made the whole universe; by your will, when it did not exist, it was created.
It seems to me these letters offer us a wealth of christological material. They each present a Christ who is someone somewhat different for each community addressed yet at the same time One.
- holds the stars of the seven lampstands in his hand. The spirits that animate the churches are under his authority.
- is the Alpha and the Omega; the One dead now made alive. He is the first fruits of our own resurrection. The empty tomb is affirmed.
- a sharp two-edged sword comes from his mouth; he is the God who speaks (difficult) truths to us and we hear.
- has eyes of flame and feet of bronze. He sees what we do even in the dark. The things he sees are revealed by an inner light from within.
- holds the key of David, what he opens cannot be shut and what he shuts cannot be opened. He has authority in the palace. He grants access to the King.
- is the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the First of God’s creation. Christ is the Cosmic Christ. Christ Pantokrator as the Greek say.
Is this what Christ is for me? There was a time when I could witness Christ speaking things to me and I hear. The Voice seems less clear now and I seek it in other places than before. The empty tomb is not at the heart of my spirituality.
This Cosmic Christ is also, in these letters, one who warns, who promises, who enters into communion with us. Perhaps I’m passing through dry straw times. But this doesn’t really speak to my experiences either.
This doesn’t feel like a cuddly me and Jesus kinda spirituality behind these writings. This doesn’t feel like the mysticism of quiet contemplation, or of waiting worship. I’d wager the early Friends knew this Jesus. This is the Jesus Rudolph Otto witnesses to in the Idea of the Holy. A Jesus disappearing form Christian culture. One that draws us to him, and scares the heck out of us at the same time. It is a mysticism of storms in the mountains, earthquakes and whirlwinds not still small voices or gentle breezes.
There were some good words on this from Jacques Ellul; I’m going to edit them down but they are very much about what we face:
“Here I believe that finally in this last letter the central theme is hope…
It is in this epistle that we find the formula so often cited of the cold, the lukewarm, and the hot. I believe this is very simple: the lukewarm is the one who desires nothing, who does not feel any lack, any absence, who does not understand that there is anything missing, who does not aspire to anything and because of that does not hope for anything.
“The cold is the one to whom much is lacking and who knows it but who does not ask for anything, who is shut up in the consciousness of his failure. The hot is the one who moves and who acts. But these latter two aspects are aspects of hope.
“The lukewarm, who is satisfied with that which he is, is led to do nothing to change, since the actual situaton appears satisfactory to him. He then does not see his real situation before God….
“This church does not know her truth, does not know herself; this is the evangelical definition of hypocrisy (which is not a conscious lie.) And from the moment there is nothing to hope for, there is no longer anything to recieve… but the opposite of hypocrisy is hope…. Now, once more, when God pronounces judgement or makes the diagnosis known, he immediately appeals, counsels, exhorts… give up as the price of what God gives, your present riches. It is that which makes it possible for God to give the remedy for sight (to see yourself such as you are in truth), which is to say deliverence from hypocrisy and committment to the way of hope…
“If Jesus Christ is so harsh, so rigorous, it is to lead this church to lucidity, to awareness, and thereby to conversion (the change of orientation and meaning.) The severity of the Lord is the only means to produce hope….
“Although [Jesus] announces his disgust for the one who is lukewarm and hypocritical, he comes to this door in order to be received. It is not the church at the end of its faithful pilgrimage who ends at the door of Paradise guarded by St. Peter; it is Christ who comes to our door, and when he arrives our door is shut.”
So who opens that door? Certainly we’re afraid what might get in, if we leave it unlocked, in this neighborhood–but we also know that unlocking it is something we’ll need to do. Slowly our fingers unclench from the knob… It’s no credit to us, we’re so reluctant. And that’s perfectly all right.
For God’s will to be done, means to have what truly matters to us.
It has been a delightful run but it has come time for old grey beast to be put out to pasture. I remain here, as always, your friendly skripture study blog servant. But the kwakersaur is gone.
Edit your links accordingly.
According to my original action plan, we pause after the letter to Laodicea and ask if this is helpful for folks. Revelation was iffy for a few of us when we started.
Do we continue? Do we find another project?
Speak, for your blog servant listens.
Each letter is a miniature Christology. For Laodicea, Christ is:
the Amen, the trustworthy, the true witness, the Principle of God’s creation
This sounds enormously like the gospel of John’s logos which in turn sounds an awful lot like the Sophia of the Proverbs.
These are all amazing titles. But they all sound remote. Wisdom. Truth. True Witness. Logos. The Word. God’s blueprint for the cosmos — looks to me like the construction workers reading the engineering specs upside down.
This sounds like a God for intellectuals. A God for folks for who getting all your notional ducks in a row before you act is the be all and end all. In other words, this is a God for folks like me. And from raw experience, I have learned one of the character flaws in folks who value wisdom over all else, is good old analysis paralysis. Hold off deciding, hold of acting until just one more fact comes it but all the facts are never in. Life goes on and the facts pile up. Need to be arranged. Placed in their cubbies. Examined like precious gemstones. You are neither hot nor cold, but only lukewarm.
It really is easier to point a finger outward than into the mirror.
Of such folks Christ says, buy from me the gold that has been tested in the fire to make you truly rich, and white robes to clothe you and hide your shameful nakedness, and ointment to put on your eyes to enable you to see . Those facts are not the fine gold we think they are. And the intellectualism we hide behind doesn’t really hide our nakedness. And our kind of wisdom doesn’t necessarily help us see any further.
Christ changes by the end of this letter. I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share a meal at that person’s side.
This is no longer the abstract First Principle. This is a God who is for us and with us. A God of relations and relationships. A God who meets us not in facts and figures but in warm moments shared.
Knowledge — in this life is about control. Promises of power here are to those who prove victorious.
Anyone who proves victorious I will allow to share my throne, just as I have myself overcome and have my seat with my Father on his throne.
Power is firstly shared, a power with God and not a power over God. And not, as in the threats, God’s power over us. And it flows from the quality of our relationship to Christ. And it is founded on our ability to resist the worst aspects of our greatest strengths.