Revelation (Everyone Commentary Series) by NT Wright
Revelation (Everyone Commentary Series) by NT Wright
For some, Jesus is just a faraway figure of first-century fantasy. For others, including some of today’s enthusiastic Christians, Jesus is the one with whom we can establish a personal relationship of loving intimacy. John would agree with the second of these, but he would warn against imagining that Jesus is therefore a cosy figure, one who merely makes us feel happy inside. To see Jesus as he is would drive us not to snuggle up to him, but to fall at his feet as though we were dead.
This vision of Jesus (verses 12– 16) introduces us to several things about the way John writes. Like someone reporting a strange dream, the things he says are hard to imagine all together. It’s more like looking at a surrealist painting, or a set of shifting computer-generated images. It’s not a simple sketch. For a start, when John hears a voice like a trumpet (verse 10), he tells us that ‘I turned to see the voice’. There is a sense in which this is just right: the Jesus whom he then sees is indeed The Voice, the living Word of the father, the one through whom God spoke and still speaks. And the words which Jesus himself speaks turn into a visible sword coming out of his mouth (verse 16), echoing Isaiah’s prophecy both about the coming king (11.4) and about the suffering servant (49.2). A great deal of this book is about ideas-made-visible, on the one hand, and scripture-made-real on the other. It is, in fact, the sort of thing someone soaked in scripture might see in a dream, after pondering and praying for many days.
In particular, this vision of Jesus draws together the vision of two characters in one of the most famous biblical visions, that of Daniel 7. (Along with the books of Exodus, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah, Daniel is one of John’s favourites.) There, as the suffering of God’s people reaches its height, ‘the Ancient of Days’ takes his seat in heaven, and ‘one like a son of man’ (in other words, a human figure, representing God’s people and, in a measure, all the human race) is presented before him, and enthroned alongside him. Now, in John’s vision, these two pictures seem to have merged. When we are looking at Jesus, he is saying, we are looking straight through him at the father himself.
Hold the picture in your mind, detail by detail. Let those eyes of flame search you in and out. Imagine standing beside a huge waterfall, its noise like sustained thunder, and imagine that noise as a human voice, echoing round the hills and round your head. And then imagine his hand reaching out to touch you . . .
Yes, fear is the natural reaction. But here, as so often, Jesus says, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ It’s all right. Yes, you are suffering, and your people are suffering (verse 9). Yes, the times are strange and hard, with harsh and severe rulers running the world and imposing their will on city after city. But the seven churches – seven is the number of perfection, and the churches listed in verse 11 thus stand for all churches in the world, all places and all times – need to know that Jesus himself is standing in their midst, and that the ‘angels’ who represent and look after each of them are held in his right hand.
And the Jesus in question has, as his credentials, the fact that he ‘was dead’, and is ‘alive for ever’ (verse 18). Like someone whispering to us that they know the secret way out of the dungeon where we have been imprisoned, he says, ‘I’ve got the keys! The keys of death and Hades – I have them right here! There’s nothing more you need worry about.’
To grasp all this requires faith. To live by it will take courage. But it is that faith, and that courage, which this book is written to evoke.
Already we are learning quite a bit about the way John writes, and the way he means his readers to understand what he says. Like anyone describing a dream or a vision, he must know that what he says is impressionistic. It appeals not to logic, but to the imagination – which has been starved rotten in some parts of our culture, and over-stimulated in others. Now we are being asked to imagine: what would it look like if the curtain between heaven and earth were suddenly pulled up, revealing the Jesus who had been there all along but whom we had managed either to ignore or to cut down to our own size? This is the answer: a Jesus who is mind-blowing, dramatically powerful but also gentle and caring; a Jesus in and through whom we see his father, God the creator; a Jesus who has spoken, and still speaks, words which explain what is going on in the present, and warn of what will happen in the future (verse 19).
John, we discover here (verse 9), is on the island called Patmos, about 35 miles off the coast of south-western Turkey. He is there ‘because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus’; this probably means that the authorities have put him there, in exile, as a punishment for his fearless teaching, and to try to stop his work having any further effect. The result has been the exact opposite. Exile has given him time to pray, to reflect, and now to receive the most explosive vision of God’s power and love. He is still, he says, a partner with the churches ‘in the suffering, the kingdom, and the patient endurance in Jesus’: an odd combination, we might think. How can the ‘kingdom’ – which means the sovereign rule – sit together with suffering and patient endurance? That is part of the whole point of the book.
Wright, N. T. (2012-05-22). Revelation for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 7-10). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.