Scripture Class on Revelation Chapters 8-16


Towards a Theology of Revelation (4)

In the third part of the Creed, the role of the Holy Spirit is spoken of among the articles of faith concerning the Church. Similarly, in this last part of considering the theology of Revelation, we pass to the Church and the Spirit.


The Church, soteriology, the Spirit, and the eschaton

When it comes to the theology of the Church in the book of Revelation, there is a noteworthy contrast between the treatment in Rev 1-3 and Rev 4-22. In the former, the focus is on suffering local churches in one territory; in the latter, the view expands to the universal Church within the entire cosmos. As well, in the former, there is a considerably nuanced presentation of both fidelity and infidelity or lukewarmness, while in the latter the Church is painted solely in positive terms; all those outside her are persecutors or blasphemers. In Rev 1-3, some have fallen from their first love, while in Rev 4-22 there is not a single apostate or sinner within the Church. Are these two pictures compatible? Yes, if we consider that in the former, John looks, as it were, with a magnifying lens at the local churches to diagnose and remedy their ills, while in the latter he “zooms out” in order to depict the ideal to which the churches should aspire. The universal picture helps the local churches to look beyond the confines of their particular problems to the vaster horizon of God’s plan. Can this not be compared to the contrast in the Pauline letters between treating of the problems of local churches and speaking of the entire Body of Christ?

New Testament faith about the Church is also reflected in the Trinitarian economy within which the Church finds herself. Here again, though, John has his peculiar manner of presenting this truth. In the epistolary greeting of 1:4 we read, “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 first-born of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”  We note first of all the order: Father, spirits, Son; most likely this is due to the transition to the following verse which gives a doxology to the Son. More puzzling is the mention of “seven spirits”. Are these the Holy Spirit? Here is an instance where we need to look at the terminology of Revelation in order to see what is meant by the expression:

  • In 1:4 the seven spirits are said to be “before His throne”.
  • They are also in connection with his throne in the great vision of the divine court in Rev 4-5: “before the throne burn seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God” (4:5b).
  • The seven spirits belong to God but are part of Christ’s array when he presents himself to the Church of Sardis, “The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” (3:1).
  • Similarly in 5:6, when the Lamb is described for the first time: “I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth”.
  • This last description helps us the most in identifying the seven spirits. They have been repeatedly said to belong to God or to be as torches burning before his throne. Now, though, they are identified with the seven eyes of the Lamb and are sent out into all the earth. The eye symbolizes sight and knowledge. Since these “eyes” go through all the earth, they indicate the complete knowledge of the Lamb. Why emphasise his omniscience? Possibly because this gives consolation to the churches in need: all their difficulties are known to the Lamb and are before God. R. Bauckham therefore designates the seven spirits as the presence and power of God which makes the Lamb’s victory operative throughout the whole world. By this emphasis on their effectiveness, he is bringing out the detail of their being “sent”.

To return to our topic – the Church within the Trinitarian economy – we see that the seven spirits cannot really be identified with the Holy Spirit as Person. However, the activity of the Spirit is certainly not lacking in the book of Revelation. In the local churches, he is active because every letter at the end of each of the seven lettersthe letter recipients are exhorted to heed “what the Spirit says to the Churches”, a message that certainly coincides with that of Christ. The book also mentions the Spirit of prophecy (19:10) who is identified with (perhaps as the source of) the testimony (martyria) to Jesus. Moreover, the Spirit pronounces an oracle about those who die “in the Lord”. Finally, at the end of the book, the Spirit is the inspiration of spousal prayer for the coming of the Lord: “The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.”” (22:17) The believer must make that prayer of the Spirit his own.

Does Revelation speak about the dignity of the members of the Church? It certainly does, with the familiar categories of “redeemed, royal, priestly, and prophetic”. The faithful are first of all, the redeemed, those who have been freed (lyein) by Christ from their sins (1:5-6). They are also redeemed (agorazein) from every nation (5:9) and redeemed “from the earth” and “from men” (14:3.4). On the positive side, in this new life flowing from baptism, they have been constituted “a kingdom, priests for God” (1:5-6). Their reign is already a sharing in God’s reign on earth but it is destined to be consecrated and become everlasting in the new Jerusalem. They also share in the millennial reign, which means the neutralising of the Dragon and hence the establishment of a community in which the forces of evil have been overcome and rendered impotent. In speaking of their priesthood, John uses the concrete term “priests” (hiereis), which highlights their individual service (whereas Heb and 1 Pt speak of being made a “priesthood”, referring to the priestly state). Their priesthood is constantly in view in Rev with prostrations, acclamations, offerings of crowns and incense, and hymns and psalms. Here is where the connection with the liturgy is particularly strong: the Trisagion and the other acts of worship of the heavenly court serve as examples for the churches of Asia to follow and in fact to participate in. The prophetic aspect of the faithful is seen in the two witnesses of Rev 11 who bear witness to the word of God before the court of the world. It is also seen indirectly in the fact that the book of Revelation is punctuated by seven promises to those who are victorious and seven beatitudes. These are meant to encourage wavering believers to be firm in their confession.

We cannot omit a word about the Church’s relationship to the new Jerusalem. The heavenly city is the confluence of all the hopes raised in the book. It signifies the new heavens and new earth and so stands for the restoration at the end of time. A few brief remarks will serve here to describe it. We can note the descriptions of who is admitted to it: the twelve tribes, the apostles, but also the ethnē (3x), a term which up to the previous chapter designated the pagans deluded by the Dragon. But now they and all who gain admittance must be pure: this is the holy Jerusalem. Another noteworthy aspect of the description is the return to the beginning: the garden of Eden is in the center of the city, as indicated by the pristine vegetation (tree of life) and landscape; also God dwells with man in immediate proximity. The climax of the description is of God and Christ seated on the same throne from which emanate the waters of life. God and Christ are the light of that city and the nations will walk in that light.


Questions for a guided reading of our textbook

  • Notice how in these pages (788-793) Raymond Brown frequently gives references to three kinds of context for understanding the intentions of the author:
    1. Old Testament passages or apocryphal works to which Revelation alludes or whose imagery it takes up and creatively re-presents;
    2. events contemporaneous to the author, such as the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79;
    3. New Testament passages that express concepts similar to those in Rev; for example, the period of three and a half years is also mentioned in Lk 4:25.
      • What is the importance of each of these three kinds of context for understanding the literal sense? Are there some sources of imagery that stand out because of their frequent repetition?
  • Notice how the author uses delay of the seventh in a series to maintain our attention, then unleashes a new series of events.
  • What suggests to scholars to divide chs. 4-22 into two parts? Where is the transition from one to the other?
  • At the literal level, who does the woman of ch. 12 represent? How does that contrast with the liturgical usage of this passage for the Blessed Virgin Mary?
  • Who do the beasts represent?
  • What response does the author want to awaken in his reader/hearer in the different scenes?
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