This blog continues yesterday’s reflection on The Revelation chapter 5 and will not be understood without it (Bible blog 2216).
A number of questions arise from the vision:
1. Is the vision merely an artistic device which allows the author to communicate a set theology? You might argue that his extensive use of imagery from the Jewish tradition supports this view. I would argue that it’s possible the author thinks in images, that is, he discovers his truth as he creates and ponders his images.
2. What level of understanding could the author expect from his audience? (We should imagine the visions being read aloud to a gathering.) My guess is that they were quite sophisticated. Many of them would have memorised passages of the Jewish scripture which had been associated with Jesus. It’s possible that they used the Psalms in worship. The significance of numbers was widely understood throughout their culture, although the precise meanings may have been shared only by believers.
Moreover, they were used to the presence and visions of prophets in their midst. Paul, writing at least 50 years earlier, speaks of prophets as one of the usual charismatic leaders in the assemblies of Jesus. Like the Hebrew prophets before them they may have spoken God’s words, or Jesus’ words, in the first person, when they were “in the Spirit.” Like Ezekiel and Isaiah they may have seen visions which brought together past knowledge with present experience to produce intuitions of new truth. The prophet John would have relied on an audience which was used to prophetic revelation.
3. To what extent is the prophet envisioning the message of Jesus as handed down from the “apostles” or does he grasp new truth? And if he does the latter, how can this be included in the message of Jesus? It’s doubtless this particular question which meant that many Assemblies who accepted all the other writings of the New Testament as scripture, questioned the inclusion of The Revelation.
Eventually the Councils of the church did include it on the grounds that it uncovered truth which otherwise would have lain hidden in the message handed down. That is to say, they believed that the prophetic imagination, under the guidance of God’s spirit, unveiled the meaning of Jesus for the assemblies of Jesus at a particular time and place. The Revelation of John, written at a time of persecution, may have been appreciated as especially valuable for that reason.
4. The image of Jesus the Lamb as the one who opens the scroll, that is, the one who interprets the will of God, in particular the writings which imagine God’s violent vengeance on sinful humanity, is a crucial key to The Revelation, and indeed to all scripture. It is a significant achievement of the prophetic imagination.
5. Is it true? Can sacrificial love be a power of judgement and renewal in a world of violence? Can it succeed where counter- violence has failed? I don’t know, but I think the question is the same as whether it makes sense to follow Jesus.
6. Does it give encouragement to those who want to use their prophetic imagination for the benefit of people today? Yes, I think it can help disciples of Jesus to make their faith relevant to the world as it is, rather than trying to force the world into the straitjacket of its traditional doctrines. It is notoriously the case that religious imagination may spawn a load of pernicious gobbledegook, but when focused on the great stories of faith, under the pressure of current events, it may deliver invigorating truth.
These two posts are incredibly insightful and beautifully written, as of course is usual with you. Some of the phrases you used yesterday and today are particularly evocative and provocative. I don’t completely agree with your approach, but I find it so compelling that I have to spend some time thinking about this chapter and what you’ve written. I’m almost certain that I will follow up with some specific comments. Thank you. Every time I read one of your posts I find myself challenged as well as enriched.