Sunday 14 July 2019

Apocalypse Now #5: Heaven’s perspective on History

Sermon preached at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 14 July 2019

Revelation 11.19-13.18

Have you ever seen the film, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark?

It is the first film I remember seeing at the cinema:
            when I was nine years old my Dad took me,
            and I can still recall how tense I found it!

I’ve seen it several times over the years, mostly at Christmas,
            and it remains a great piece of cinema - Steven Spielberg at his absolute best.

The key aspect to the plot
            is that the characters are trying to locate the lost ark of the covenant
            - the stone box containing the tablets with the ten commandments
                        that used to live in the Jewish temple,
            but which was lost or destroyed
                        when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 586 BC.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler if a film is nearly forty years old,
            so I think I’m on safe ground in revealing that they do indeed find the ark,
                        with dramatic and deathly consequences, at least for the Nazis,
            and at the end of the film the ark is packaged up,
                        and then hidden in a packing crate in a giant government warehouse.

Well, I don’t want to call into question the historicity of the film’s version of events,
            but the reading we had earlier from the Book of Revelation
            offers a slightly different take on the ark’s location.

Having reached a point of climax
            following the sounding of the seventh trumpet,
John takers his audience further into his vision of heaven (11.19; cf. 4.1).
            and this time he shows them the heavenly temple,
            and there, in the middle of it, is the lost ark of the covenant.

It’s not in an American warehouse,
            it’s in the God’s heavenly temple.

Having travelled with the people of Israel through their wilderness journey,
            then spending some centuries in the Holy of Holies
                        in Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. 
            and finally being lost under the Babylonian invitation
                        the ark had passed into the realm of Jewish mythology.

One strand of Jewish tradition had held
            that the ark would be revealed on earth at the end times, 
            however in John’s vision, the ark is revealed in heaven.

Whereas for the Jews the ark was the symbol of their unique covenant with God,
            in John’s vision it is now seen to be available to all the followers of the Lamb
accompanying them as they make their own exodus journey
            through the wilderness of the world.

The key point that John is making here is to challenge
            the direct equation of the people of Israel with the people of God.

No longer is the fulfilment of God’s covenant with Abraham
            restricted to those who keep the Law of Moses,
                        written on tablets of stone and stored in the ark in Jerusalem, 
but rather the presence of God is seen by John
            to be with all those who journey from Babylon to the new Jerusalem.

This vision of heaven opened
            prepares the way for the sequence of visions that follow.
And the next two chapters
            contain some of the most vivid and compelling images in the book of Revelation.

John starts off by introducing us to a pregnant woman
            dressed in sunlight, standing on the moon
            and crowned with twelve stars (12.1).

He then brings into view her son,
            a child who rules the nations with a  rod of iron,
                        and ends up in heaven (12.5).

Next we meet the unholy trinity
            of the dragon (12.3),
            the scarlet beast from the sea (13.1),
            and the beast from the earth (13.11),

not to mention the mark of the beast (13.16–17)
            and the mysterious number 666 (13.18) .

If ever there were chapters guaranteed to cause confusion and misunderstanding,
            these are good candidates.

But the key to making sense of them
            is to try and discern the motivations behind John’s writing.

Do you remember me saying previously in this series,
            that one of the reasons Revelation can seem so confusing
                        is because it has so many different characters,
            and that the way to simplify it is to realise that whilst there are lots of characters,                          there are a limited number of actors playing them all.

This, of course, is exactly the way Greek theatre worked,
            and when we were visiting the seven churches of Revelation a couple of weeks ago,
            we saw these theatrical masks from the first century,
            that actors would use to play different characters.

So what’s going on here, in the story of the pregnant woman,
            her child, and the dragon?

Well, firstly, it serves as a reminder of the events so far.

You know when you sit down to watch a TV programme
            and it’s the second part of a series?
It will often begin with a compressed version of the previous episode.
            A kind of, ‘The story so far…’

Well, in Revelation 12, at the half-way point in the book,
            John offers a recapitulation of history
            in order to remind his audience of what has gone before.

And he does this using the three characters
            of the woman, her child, and the wicked dragon,
as he presents what is, in effect, a potted spiritual history of the world.

So let’s start with the woman.

Many people have seen an image of the virgin Mary in this woman,
            and if you go into Catholic churches around the world,
                        you will often find statues of Mary depicted with a crown of twelve stars,
                        or with her standing on the moon with a dragon beneath her feet.

However, it’s far from clear that this is what John has in mind here.

He’s probably combining a variety of traditions,
            from Jewish, Egyptian, and Greek mythology.

Most significant here, though, is the story of Abraham’s wife Sarah,
            who gives birth to their son Isaac in old age,
in fulfilment with God’s covenant to Abraham
            that all the nations of the world would be blessed through his descendants.

By this understanding,
            the woman represents the faithful people of God down through all the ages,
                        with the twelve tribes of Israel reflected in her crown of twelve stars (12.1);
            and she gives birth to a messianic child
                        who it’s proclaimed will be the ruler of the nations (12.5).

In this way, John is painting a picture of the Messiah, Jesus Christ,
            coming into the world through the nation of Israel,
                        being born from within the people of God,
            and he is showing the people of God as good news to all nations,
                        in fulfilment of the covenant he made with Abraham.

This is significant theology,
            because it shows Revelation’s hope for universal salvation.

Revelation doesn’t condemn the nations of the earth to eternal destruction,
            rather it shows how the faithful witness of the people of God,
                        even in the face of terrible opposition,
            provides the path for the eventual ingathering of all the nations
                        to the loving arms of God.

John then introduces the dragon,
            the Devil thrown out of heaven for bad behaviour
            to roam the earth wreaking havoc (12.7–9, 13).

Would anyone like to tell me the Devil’s other names?
            Beelzebub? Lucifer? Satan?

Let’s start with Satan:

Interestingly, this story of the expulsion of Satan from heaven
            is unique to the Apocalypse,
although it has its origins in a number of Jewish traditions.

John probably has in mind as the background to his story
            the mythological account from Genesis
            of ‘sons of God’ coming to the earth to take human wives,
                        resulting in the giant-like Nephilim (Gen. 6.1–4),
and this story certainly crops up in other examples of Jewish apocalyptic literature
            as the story of the Watchers (1 Enoch 6—19).

He probably also has in mind a passage from the book of Isaiah,
            which refers to an ancient Ugaritic myth
                        about the casting down of Venus, the morning star, from the heavens
                                    by the great god Elyon, who is described as the sun,
                        in whose rays the light of the morning star dims.

Isaiah uses this story as a taunt against the Assyrian king,
            who he describes as the Morning Star
            whose light will fade before the brighter sunshine of the true God (Isa. 14.10–15).

The identification of this ‘morning star’ as Lucifer,
            the fallen angel otherwise known as Satan, is not in the Bible at all!

It only occurs much later in the post-canonical Christian tradition
            - I promise you it’s absolutely not there in the Bible -
and it came about because of a translation error in the middle ages.

The Latin name for Venus, the ‘morning star’, is Lux-ifer, or ‘light-bearer’;
            and when this was translated into English,
                        rather than using the phrase ‘morning star’, or ‘Venus’,
            they just transliterated the Latin, and invented the word ‘Lucifer’.

Then, in Christian mythology, this idea of the morning star, or Lucifer,
            falling from the sky as the bright sun rises,
became combined with the story of Satan’s expulsion from heaven in Revelation,
            to give the name Lucifer to Satan.

Ironically, it is Jesus, not Satan,
            who is described as the ‘bright morning star’ in the book of Revelation
                        (2.28; 22.16; cf. 2 Peter 1.19),
which is probably a reference to a messianic prophecy from the book of Numbers
            which says that ‘a star shall come out of Jacob’ (Num. 24.17).

Anyway, all these traditions of angelic beings
            descending from heaven to the earth
provide the background to John’s image
            of the Satanic dragon being cast to the earth.

But the name ‘Satan’ only occurs in three places within the Old Testament,
            all of them dating from the time of the Babylonian exile or later.

The Hebrew word ‘satan’ simply means ‘adversary’,
            and although the later religious traditions of Satan
                        as an evil spiritual opponent
            are clearly derivative of the Jewish material,
the Old Testament references must be allowed to stand in their own right
            without being overlaid with later developments.

1.        A being described as ‘a satan’
            prompts David to count the people of Israel (1 Chr. 21.1),
but this may be no more than a reference to a human
            who gives David bad advice;

2.        in the book of Job, Satan appears as one of the heavenly beings
            who has been walking about on the earth (Job 1.6–7);

3.        and in the prophecy of Zechariah
            ‘Satan’ appears as a prosecuting counsel
            in the heavenly courtroom (Zech. 3.1–2).

And that’s it!

It’s this final notion of ‘Satan’ as a designation of ‘one who opposes’
            that lies behind Jesus’ description of Peter as ‘Satan’,
when he says to him ‘get behind me Satan’
            after Peter tries to encourage him to avoid going to his death (Matt. 16.23).

However, there are other places within the New Testament
            where Satan appears as a personified adversary (cf. Matt. 4.10; Mark 4.15),
and it’s is worth realising that Satan in Scripture
            is always only ever the enemy of humanity,
            and not the enemy of God.

The idea of the Devil or Satan as a kind of ‘bad version of God’
            with Satan and God locked in endless combat between good and evil
might make good TV, as it certainly did in the recent series ‘Good Omens’,
            but I’m afraid it’s not really biblical!

The notion of Satan as one who is fallen
            is referred to by Jesus who says:
            ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.’ (Luke 10.18)

However, this is different to the war in heaven that we meet in Revelation,
            because it is a reference to the effects of Jesus’ own ministry,
            not to some ancient time when Satan was cast from heaven.

Fallen angels are also briefly mentioned in the book of Jude,
            but this is a passage derivative of the Watchers myth that I mentioned earlier,
and doesn’t convey any concept
            of evil angels being expelled from heaven before the fall of Adam.

And it’s is against the background of all these different images
            that John’s own imagery needs to be read.

So, to return to our story from Revelation:

The dragon, known as the Devil and Satan, but not as Lucifer,
            tries to lead the world astray (12.9),
                        to kill the Messiah-child (12.4)
            and to devour the people of God (12.13).

But God is seen protecting his people,
            leading them into the desert for a wilderness experience
            that parallels that of the people of Israel in Old Testament times (12.6, 14).

God then snatches his son from the jaws of the dragon,
            taking him from death to eternity (12.5)
and leaving the dragon to roam the earth
            making war on the other children of the woman (12.13, 17).

And this is where John locates his own audience within the story:
            they are those who keep God’s command
            and hold firm to the witness of Jesus
in the face of the onslaught from the dragon (12.17).

The people of God, according to John’s scheme here,
            are living in the wilderness
with the dragon poised to make war
            on all those who owe their allegiance to the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

And this imagery would have made perfect sense to John’s first audience.

They only had to look around them to see ample evidence
            that the dragon was poised to strike!

The Roman Empire towered over the congregations of the faithful
            like a mighty beast set on their destruction,
and the people of God in John’s churches
            were living out their lives in the shadow of the imperial dragon.

So having reminded them of their history,
            by giving them another glimpse of the throne room in heaven
                        where all his visions began
            and showing them the Messiah-child in his place before God’s throne,
John turns his attention once more
            to the difficult and dangerous situation facing the people of God
            as they live out their lives under the authority of Rome.

And again, John presents them
            with an alternative way of viewing their lived reality;
he confronts them with the heavenly perspective
            on their earthly situation.

In this way he seeks to prepare his readers for their difficult task
            of holding firm to the truth of the gospel,
            and of overcoming evil
as they endure as faithful witnesses to the end.

And John gives his audience this heavenly perspective
            through the story he tells of the dragon and the two beasts.

The dragon symbolises the underlying source of all opposition to God,
            the beast from the sea symbolises the military and political power of Rome,
            and the beast from the earth symbolises the propaganda machine
                        that promotes the Empire and all it stands for.

However, the beast from the earth also has a face that can be recognized
            as the focus of the propaganda of Roman imperialism,
namely the Emperor Nero,
            both in terms of the claims he made during his life
                        to be a God in human form,
            and the stories that circulated after his death
                        that he was going to return from the grave and take up power again.

The Jews used to take names and substitute letters for numbers,
            and then add these together to arrive at the ‘number’ of a name.
They called this process ‘numerology’,
            and believed that you could tell something important about a person
            by the number of their name.

So when Revelation says that the ‘number’ of the name of the beast is 666 (13.18),
            it seems likely that the author has an individual in mind.

If you take the Greek for Nero Caesar,
            transliterate it into Hebrew
            and turn it into a number you get, you guessed it, 666.

666 is also the number you get from the Greek word for ‘beast’,
            reinforcing the point that the number of the ‘beast’
                        is indeed the ‘name’ of Nero.

Through all this imagery, John is seeking to give his audience
            a new level of understanding about both their current situation
            and the events that have led up to where they find themselves.

From their perspective they see the Roman Empire
            in all its terrible glory, endlessly promoting itself
            as the bringer of peace through its military strength:
and the temptation they faced was to believe the Roman propaganda.

However, the way John depicts it,
            Rome is simply the latest and greatest manifestation
                        of the ancient force of evil that has been roaming the world
                        seeking to destroy the faithful children of God since time began.

Rome, from John’s perspective, is not the bringer of peace through the Pax Romana, 
            but is rather a purveyor of violence. 

Only in Christ, John wants to say, can peace be found.

So when Rome claims to be the one who brings peace by violence,
            she is blaspheming God
            and making herself an idol for her people to worship.

In this way, John places his audience right in the centre
            of what he perceives as a great cosmic battle
between the dragon and the faithful people of God
            that has been raging for millennia.

And as we seek to apply these insights to our own world,
            I would suggest that wherever the forces of evil
                        are manifested through idolatrous, powerful and corrupt institutions,
            then the children of God, the army of the Lamb, are called by John to battle.

In this way, John’s vision always challenges the received view of history,
            it always undermines any presentation of empire
                        as a glorious and beneficent institution.

And this is as true of the contemporary empires of capitalism in our world,
            as it was of the Roman empire of the first century.

In place of this, he shows us that from heaven’s perspective,
            the Empire is an idolatrous system
            that is set on deceiving the ‘whole earth’ (13.3–4) into worshipping it
                        through participation in its propaganda and ideology.

Just as in the first century, the imperial cult of emperor worship
            provided a direct religious focus for the claims of the Empire
                        over the hearts, minds and bodies of its citizens.

So in our world we need to be alert to the temptations to hero-worship individuals,
            or to seek to combine state and church in mutually beneficial deals of convenience.

The place of the faithful Church is always going to be one of wilderness journeying,
            protected by God, resistant to empire,
            and on our way from slavery to freedom.

No comments: