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ClassicsOnline Home » NEW TESTAMENT (New Jerusalem version), Set 8: The Revelation to John
The Spoken Word
Set One: The Early Letters of Paul – Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians
Set Two: The Mature Letters of Paul – Romans, Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon
Set Three: The Gospel according to Mark
Set Four: The Gospel according to Matthew
Set Five: The Gospel according to Luke
Set Six: The Acts of the Apostles
Set Seven: Letters and Documents
Set Eight: The Revelation to John
Set Nine: The Gospel according to John: 1 John
The scriptures, Old and New Testaments, were shaped into their present form over centuries. From a range of documents, first the Hebrew and later the Christian community selected certain writings authorised for reading in public liturgy. That is the whole point of the canons of scripture. The Christian Church adopted the Hebrew canon in its entirety as being part of its own canon. In arriving at their choice, our forebears also made decisions about the order in which the documents were to be placed within the canon. The New Testament possesses a rationality in its order, placing the story of Jesus first, followed by Luke’s account of the missionary growth of the church, then the body of letters and concluding with Revelation—a broad chronology of events.
I have chosen to arrange the recordings in the order of composition, so far as that order is generally agreed upon by scholars. The letters of Paul were written before any of the gospel accounts. Mark’s gospel was followed by Matthew, then Luke, a book in two halves, the second half being the Acts of the Apostles. John’s gospel can be read as a reflection back on the entire tradition.
My objective in making these recordings is to present the scriptures to my contemporaries in a manner that will, I hope, capture their imagination and attention. Most of the biblical books are finely nuanced, and it can take the art of reading to bring out those nuances. Through nuance we capture imagination. Each of these documents was a response to a need that passionately involved both the writer and their readers. We are able today, in some measure, to recapture what those circumstances were, and therefore approach the texts with a light unavailable in the past. In commencing with 1 Thessalonians, for example, we can listen as a people for whom there was nothing at all in writing relating to their new-found faith. In the letter, Paul’s own thinking is far from mature. Thessalonians shows us a community of faith just beginning to grapple with themes that have occupied Christians ever since.
Even by the last of Paul’s letters to be written, not one of the gospels has appeared. Paul knows little of the details of Jesus’ life and teaching. Even in the Judea of that period the stories of Jesus’ life must have been little known or little valued, since otherwise Paul would have been instructed during his times in Jerusalem. When Mark was published, it may have come as a shock and revelation to the whole church. By reading Mark after hearing Paul, we can enter in some measure into the experience of learning about the earthly life of Jesus against the background of the significance Paul has assigned to the man.
Mark presents a picture of Jesus that fits the Pauline theology of justification by faith. Matthew, writing a decade later, appears to shape his account to contradict Mark and show Jesus as the man of the Law, the establishment man. By reading Matthew after Mark and possibly as a reaction to Mark we bring new light to our understanding of both.
This arrangement of texts also allows the connection of Luke and Acts into the continuous narrative they were originally intended to be and which the placement of John’s gospel between them destroys. John’s gospel, and the first Letter of John, is placed at the end of this collection not only because they were written around the turn of the century, with just a few of the New Testament documents subsequent, but principally because this gospel provides a supreme reflection upon the whole tradition and makes a fitting climax.
Here, then, is an invitation to listeners to bring new life and understanding of the scriptures that I believe will, in turn, invigorate our engagement with the scriptures in all our manners of approach.
The New Jerusalem Bible translation
I use the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) for these readings and I am grateful to the publishers (Random House (US) and Darton, Longman & Todd), for their permission to read from their translation. There are a number of good translation options available but, to my ear, only one, the NJB, captures the sound of words with vividness. Others are essentially literary compositions, their focus being upon the printed page. The NJB is not without its weaknesses but, on the basis of the sound of its words, it stands head and shoulders above other contemporary translations.
Any gift that I may have which is expressed in these readings is just that—a gift received from the Spirit through the person of others. I owe an inestimable debt to my speech tutor of student days, John N Thompson, and to Dr Raymond Foster, whose enthusiasm for Jeremiah and Ezekiel set me on the path of a love for the scriptures. To my son, Jonathan, I owe all my skills with the computer, enabling the technical side of these recordings, while my wife Barbara and daughter Ruth have been my unfailing support, encouragement and critics. Strangely, the centrepiece of this acknowledgement belongs to five children, my grandchildren, for whom I ventured into recording in order to create for them disks of stories and music.
The manner of the gift
How did it come about that I created these recordings? The story commences in mid-2006 as I was emerging from a long period of illness. During this period the daily morning and evening prayer offices of the church were my sustaining support. I began to record these offices and publish them on my website and on podcast, receiving considerable affirmation and support from many for the initiative.
The early broadcasts were poor in quality, both from the standard of equipment and my technical inexperience, but these gradually improved and the standards rose. Initially, I recorded each day’s office as a complete entity, but found that this consumed an immense amount of time—recording, editing and making ready for broadcast—and also brought variable quality, dependent as it was on my pressure, health and well-being on each day.
The logical next step was to record whole books of the Old and New Testaments and then break up the recordings into the tracks corresponding to the daily lections and that is what I proceeded to do. From that point it became a near-inevitable step to conceive the publication of the recordings in themselves, while a parallel development of conceptualisation took place regarding the philosophy behind the recording and their ordering, as recounted above. And so these recordings came to be. They remain for me indelibly planted in the spirituality of the prayer offices; for me, a gifting of the Spirit through me to the church.
For the prayer offices: www.genesis.net.nz.
David Guthrie, 2009
The Revelation to John
A difficult book!
No single book in the New Testament has been subject to such abuse over the centuries as the Revelation to John. That abuse has caused untold suffering to both communities and individuals. In our own day, the Revelation to John tends to be either embraced as a prescriptive account of the literal future or else neglected altogether. Both extremes are tragic for faith. If I had to make one hope for the entire The Spoken Word project it would be for the rehabilitation of the Revelation to John to take its rightful place in the life of the Christian community in our day.
Putting aside its abuse by so-called ‘biblical prophecy’, the heart of our difficulty with this book lies with its imagery which to our modern mind is weird and so far out that it is hard for us to make any sense at all of it.
Beyond the imagery itself is the sheer savagery of much of the imagery and scenarios and projections of vengeance that do not sit comfortably with the modern Western mind. Furthermore, its imagery has been often translated into actions that mirrored the savagery and so brought the whole of the faith into disrepute.
The third difficulty that we have with the book is the way in which its imagery, interpreted literally, became expressed in Christian doctrine and liturgy in ways we now find unacceptable.
For all these difficulties, the Revelation to John repays the Christian community handsomely for renewed attention to its message.
Where and why written
We know nothing about the author apart from his name, John, and even that may be pseudonymous, intended to create an attribution to the apostle John. The liturgical nature of the document probably indicates that he was a priest and indeed he is often called ‘Presbyter John”.
The writing dates from the mid-90s, almost at the same time as the document ‘To the Hebrews’. (TSW Set 7, Vol 20) This is illuminating in itself because both documents are focused on priesthood, indicating, as the internal imagery of Revelation shows, that by the end of the first century the Christian community was deeply embedded in the concept of priestly ministry and liturgy. Although Hebrews was written in Rome and Revelation in Asia Minor, both reflect a crisis of faith in the church and both have essentially the same message—perseverance in faith in the face of the challenges the community faces.
John was in exile on the small island of Patmos off the coast of Asia Minor. We do not know why he was in exile, but that fact itself tells us something about the time of stress for the Christian community.
What motivated John to write was that he saw a time of great persecution coming, threatening the existence of the church. The source of the persecution is the Roman empire and specifically the decree that all citizens must worship the emperor as divine and pay homage to his statues that were being erected in every town. The town councillors were responsible to ensure that every citizen conformed to the imperial decree. For the Christians this would become a matter of life and death for to refuse to obey was a capital offence. The alternative to refusal to obey was to compromise and conform outwardly (which was all that the empire required) but for John this was a betrayal of Christ.
As seen in the sermon to the Hebrews, the church at the end of the first century was in a crisis as disillusionment set in arising from the failed expectations of the return of Christ. Members of the Christian community were losing faith and falling away from the church. To be a Christian in that era was extremely difficult. Every aspect of life was saturated with pagan sacrifice and so off-limits to faithful Christians. Social occasions involved libations to the gods, all economic activity was related to the gods, service in the army required acknowledgement of the divinity of the emperor as did every aspect of the civil administration. Furthermore, the practice of the Christians in accepting slaves as equal members of their community, even sharing their sacred rite, made the community offensive socially, quite apart from its refusal to conform to the sexual morality of the day.
So John faced two facts: first, the impending persecution of devastating proportions and, second, the decline in faith and practice being only too clearly manifest in the community.
Why is the Revelation to John important?
When we come to assess the importance of the Revelation to John the first thing that has to be said is that its importance does not relate in any way to literal predictions about the future, either of its own time or as may relate to our own time.
How important the writing was in its own time and specific circumstances is impossible to say. Certainly the church faced the twin crises described above and in time it addressed and overcame both challenges and survived, to become in succeeding centuries the religion of the empire displacing paganism. Whether John’s writing had any impact in his own day we cannot know.
What is more immediate to us, however, is the importance of this document to contemporary life especially as we reject spurious ‘biblical prophecy’.
The first section of John’s book is an analysis of the church of his day. The first message we may take from the writing is a call similarly to analyse clearly and critically the life of our contemporary Christian community, affirming its strengths and challenging its weaknesses. Such an analysis may reveal that there is a parallel in some respects between the church of the end of the 1st century and the church of the early 21st century. Both were/are confronting a crisis of disillusionment with models of faith that had served previous generations and now no longer ‘work’. More to the point, however, is that we may well identify with John’s perception that in his own day a major faith-generating crisis was bearing down upon the Christian community, a crisis for which it was not well prepared. If such an identification is well-founded, then John’s message of keeping faith and hope is as relevant and powerful for our day as in his.
What Revelation says about worship and liturgy
The other area in which the Revelation to John may well hold seeds of a profound spiritual revival for our day lies in what it reveals to us about liturgy and worship in the early church.
To grasp the imagery of the Revelation to John we must first recognise that everything in that book is related to John’s experience of worship Sunday by Sunday. The key chapters are 4 and 5. Here, transposed to ‘heaven’, is the only description in the New Testament (apart from Paul’s Corinthian meetings of half a century earlier) of what the early Christians experienced when they attended worship. What we see is that their worship was profoundly formal and liturgical, with common congregational responses, with robed priest and large sanctuary party, all robed in white. The centrepiece of the church was the altar surmounted by the symbol of Christ and surrounded by lamps and candles. Incense filled the sanctuary, used at critical junctures in the liturgy This was New Testament worship. Symbol and imagery dominated everything. What the congregation saw in the sanctuary was a vision of earth and heaven united, and their liturgy was one in which the whole universe, human and animal, animate and inanimate was engaged.
Addressing the imagery of the book, there is no space here to explore this in detail. The most important element is to allow our imagination to flow with John without a hang-up that these descriptions are in any way literal. The political situation did not allow John to write in direct terms about the empire, so his message was dressed up in images in a tradition not unfamiliar to his readers. Perhaps the easiest path by which we can engage Revelation’s imagery is to recognised that it is rather like a situation were we to express the Christian message today in imagery drawn from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. If we parallel the descriptions in Revelation to Tolkien’s story we can gain some perspective on how to deal with the imagery, including the imagery of savagery and condemnation. It is probable that John’s readers were just as disturbed by the extremities of punishment and damnation as we are today and that this was a deliberate intent on John’s part. He aimed to shock the community out of its lethargy.
God is in control
What the Revelation to John says, above everything else, is that, despite what may appear on the surface of life, God is in complete control of events. The power of the political authority, in John’s day as in ours, may well appear overwhelming and unbeatable, but it is totally governed by God and exercises its power only for such a time and under such circumstances as God permits. God cannot be defeated, or sidelined, or denied. The Christian community will ultimately triumph over every adversary and every challenge, and no individual Christian will go unrewarded for keeping faithful, even if the concrete circumstances of life appear to say otherwise.
The key to Christian living as communicated through the Revelation to John is in being able to see the universe as grace, a vision that cuts through all the surface circumstances and politics. That key is granted in liturgy. That is what Revelation tells us. Liturgy is not about words but about vision and symbol: it is about seeing, through the act and place of liturgy, the universe as wholly and completely God’s and of God.
The place of imagination
Perhaps the most profound meaning that the Revelation to John carries to the modern world is in the role of imagination. For the past two centuries, life in the Western world has been dominated by the exclusion of imagination from any sense that it is a pathway to grasping reality; reality is only what our five senses convey, as processed by the rational mind. This has produced a religious life in which symbol and imagery have become marginalised. The literalism of biblical fundamentalism and so-called ‘biblical prophecy’ is the ultimate religious expression of the rationalism of the modern mind. When the Revelation to John is interpreted out of this rationalism it produces a radical distortion of its message.
Engagement with this book on its own terms, especially when linked with liturgical practice, brings back to us the recognition that, while not denying or denigrating the achievements of scientific culture, the inner nature of reality as grace can only be accessed through the imagination, and the key to imagination is symbol and imagery.
The spiritual power of this New Testament writing in our own day may lie centrally in its capacity to re-awaken our imagination and so bring us to new perception of life and the universe and God.
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