The A-Team of the Apocalypse (the subject of my April posting) has a formidable opponent in the red team of Revelation: the red dragon, the scarlet beast, and the scarlet harlot. The beastly red dragon of Rev. 12:3 is identified in 12:9 as “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” In 13:1-3 the dragon gives its power and great authority to the beast coming out of the sea; the whole earth follows the beast with wonder. The saints, however, whose names are written in the book (scroll) of life, refuse to give allegiance to this beastly power; so the beast fights and slaughters some saints with the sword (13:7-10).
This dynamic duo of the dragon and beast is then expanded in 17:1-4 with the scarlet harlot, who rides the beast, now colored scarlet also. As the red dragon and scarlet beast slaughter with the sword all over the earth, the scarlet harlot sits pretty, drunk with the red blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses of Jesus (17:6; 18:24). The red team is bloodthirsty.
When the slaughtered Lamb is given the book (scroll) of life by the one on the throne in heaven, he will open the scroll by opening its seven seals (5:1-5). The only other mention of red in Revelation is when the second seal is opened: a bright red horse comes, whose rider is given a great sword, and he takes peace from the earth, so men slaughter one another (6:4). This thus portrays the beast (or one of its heads, identified in 17:9-10 as kings) riding the red dragon; their teamwork wreaks havoc all over the earth, slaughtering with their great sword.
John’s visions of this red team expose the violence of Satan’s world empire, which was the Roman Empire then. This international empire came out of the (warships on the) sea in order to enforce its authority and enhance the beauty of its great harlot (city). All the luxuries, resources, and merchandise of conquered lands came flowing into the city–including slave labor (18:12-13). Her wealthiest businessmen were the “great men” of the earth (18:23), who enriched the various kings of the earth and lesser merchants, who all supported this red team. The majestic city that dazzled was then Rome.
Jesus shows these visions to John in order to awaken the churches in Asia Minor–not far from Rome–to the grim realities of imperial power and wealth. For most of the seven churches have benefited from their cities’ close links with Roman power and wealth. But their toleration and even adoration of the “beast” and “harlot” have meant their becoming part of the “fan club” of the red team, whose “captain” is the dragon.
Moreover, apocalyptic symbols–like dragons, beasts, and harlots–have an ongoing usefulness to expose later appearances of the red team in history. For the beast of 13:2, that is a combination of wild animals (the leopard, bear, and lion), draws on older symbols itself. Daniel 7:3-6 portrays great beasts that come out of the sea (a lion, bear, and leopard), and identifies them as kingdoms, and kings (7:17,23). And the scarlet harlot is depicted in Rev. 17:5 as that older great city, Babylon the great. The great world empires, and their showcase cities, continue to come throughout history, like the waves of the sea.
Many people in the world today who might read the above description of the red team would have little trouble identifying its present form. The world empire that now brings “shock and awe” via its wild unleashing of the “sword” is the U.S. And the great city that profits from this slaughter and showcases the luxuries and wealth that result is New York–with its great international bankers and businessmen. Revelation can continue to expose the dangers of our patriotic love, our love for the rich and powerful, because like most of the seven churches (of Rev. 2-3), many of our churches are also deceived by this red team. Because we profit from its beastly rampages, and desire its beautiful luxuries, we listen to false prophets who proclaim the good intentions of the beast and the harlot, the “innocence” of this violent empire and its wealthy corporations. According to the false prophets, the bad guys are primarily those who speak or act against this empire.
The challenge for churches and Christians continues to be: Whose team do you like? Whose team do you adore and give allegiance to? Whose team do you listen to and believe? For only one team, the A-team of the apocalypse, is telling the truth and is worthy of adoration and allegiance. Many Christians and churches in the U.S. are not persecuted because they are not true prophets; it is not in their self-interest. Revelation shows that this present comfortable position–allied with the red team–endangers one’s eternal position; for the red team (that rules the international seas) will end up in the lake of fire.
Apocalypse is the first word in the Greek text of Revelation, a word that itself begins with the first letter of the Greek alphabet (alpha). This apocalypse (revelation) will reveal divine beings that are “the alpha and the omega” (the first and the last). In Rev. 1:8, the Lord God Almighty says, “I am the alpha and the omega;” in 1:17-18, the risen Jesus says, “I am the first and the last and the living one.”
When the alpha Jesus addresses the last of the seven churches, he introduces himself as “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation” (3:14). The word Amen was used at the beginning or end of a statement to verify the truth of its witness; Jesus is the Amen, the first and foremost faithful witness–and the final witness (at the final judgment). In 1:5 Jesus Christ is similarly described as the “faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” As the firstborn of the dead, the risen Jesus is the beginning (the arche) of God’s new creation; and as the risen Christ (king), he is the ruler (the archon) who gives the faithful (and final) witness against all the kings of the earth.
Near the end of Revelation (in 22:16), Jesus says he is the bright morning star (the aster). As the alpha star shining bright in heaven, the firstborn of the dead pioneers the way for others to become bright shining stars, after their faithful witness on earth is finished. Foremost among this new creation of (alpha) stars would be the seven stars Jesus holds in his right hand in 1:16; in 1:20 Jesus reveals that these stars are angels of the seven churches; so the seven asteres are seven angeloi. Since Jesus is the morning star, the preeminent Angel (of the Lord), these other stars are probably his foundational apostles and prophets, who have finished their faithful witness on earth and become part of the heavenly A-team. And their witness continues on earth through writings like this apocalypse (and the rest of the New Testament). The prophet (and apostle) John, who writes this apocalypse, will soon join them.
Recognition of this A-team helps the reader to recognize later reappearances in this apocalypse. In 8:10-11 a great star “falls” from heaven and embitters waters and rivers on earth. The name of the star is Apsinthos; the great alpha morning star is coming to earth, bright and burning like a torch, and bringing a further faithful witness against the “waters and rivers” (in 17:15, the “waters” are peoples and multitudes and nations that are under the spell, the seduction, of the great harlot city, Babylon). This heavenly alpha witness against the earth comes through prophets like John, described in 11:3 as witnesses who prophesy; in 11:6, their witness has power over the “waters” to turn them into blood (a similar metaphor as embittering waters, through faithful witness against them).
In 9:1 the star that “fell” from heaven (Apsinthos in 8:10) is given the key to the abyss (similar to 1:18, where the Jesus who died and now lives has the keys of death and Hades). In 9:11, this angel of the abyss is a king whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek is Apolluon. This great star is king over the flying “locusts” (akridon) who have been freed from the abyss. Since the meaning of Abaddon is destruction and Apolluon is destroyer, most interpreters do not see this angel as Jesus; but in 11:18 the final woe of the wrath of God (and his Christ) includes destroying the destroyers of the earth. This vision reveals an earlier witness against the destroyers of earth, via the rising “locusts,” who torment the earth (9:5), similar to the witnesses of 11:10, who torment those on earth.
Probably the most famous alpha in this apocalypse is Armagedon (16:16); it is the place where the kings of the whole world gather for the final “battle.” The place of that name could be the same place where the name King of kings and Lord of lords is–namely, on Jesus’ robe and thigh (in 19:16). The Hebrew name Armagedon (spelled Armageddon in English) is written in Greek letters in 16:16 and begins with a Greek rough breathing mark; thus it would be pronounced “Harmagedon.” Many see that the first syllable, har, sounds like the Hebrew word for mountain; and many then combine that with the place Megiddo in Israel. But in 17:9-10 the seven heads of the beast (empire) are identified as seven mountains, which are in turn identified as seven kings. So a mountain can symbolize a king. Taking a clue from that first syllable, one could then look at the second syllable: the Hebrew word mag (like the Latin word magnus) means great; and the Greek word for great (mega) is an important word used often in Revelation (as in 8:10-11 for the great star Apsinthos). The name “great mountain (king)” indeed fits the context; the focus is on the final battle between the heavenly kings–led by the great King of kings–and the earthly kings. And as the Hebrew Abaddon is the great king of the abyss, so the Hebrew Armagedon is the great King of kings (with the final syllable in both names possibly alluding to the Hebrew word adon, meaning ruler or lord). As in 19:15-16, this final battle envisioned in 16:16 is the final faithful witness (judgment) from the A-team in heaven against the kings and nations of earth.
When Rev. 1:1 begins with Jesus Christ (king) about to show his servants what must soon come to pass, many later readers thought of the “end time,” climaxed by Jesus’ second coming in power and glory. Rev. 1:7 does describe this final coming–”he is coming with the clouds . . . and all the tribes of the earth will mourn;” Jesus uses similar words in Mt. 24:30. This description alludes to Dan. 7:13, where Daniel sees a vision of one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. And in Rev. 1:13 John sees a vision of one like a son of man, who tells John to write (to the seven churches) about what he sees, what they are, and what will come to pass after these things (1:19).
What John sees in 1:12-16 is the power and glory of the one like a son of man, who is in the midst of seven lampstands; then he is told what (and who) they are: he has seen the living one, who died (the risen Jesus); and the seven lampstands he saw are the seven churches (1:18,20). In Rev. 2-3 John then writes messages (prophetic oracles) to the churches (from Christ) about what will happen soon. Because the words of this prophecy will warn of coming judgments against most of these churches, if they refuse to repent, Rev. 1:3 says, “blessed is the one who (courageously) reads aloud (to disobedient churches) the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who (have ears to) hear, and who keep (repent, due to) what is written (and read to them); for the time is near.
What is near is a new coming of Christ–similar to his coming now to John and speaking words of warning to most of the churches. Thus to the church in Ephesus, Jesus says if they do not repent (return to their first love, Jesus and his apostles, like Paul who helped plant the Ephesus church), “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (2:4-5). Jesus comes now through this prophetic oracle, and he could come again soon through another oracle of even worse judgment. A church that is not continuing the witness and works of Jesus and his apostles is not a true church (lampstand). Removing a lampstand would mean a judgment like that of Mk. 6:11, where Jesus’ witnesses leave those places that do not receive them.
The next mention of his coming to a church soon is in 2:16. If the church in Pergamum does not repent (turn away from false prophets similar to Balaam), Jesus will come to them soon and fight against them with the sword of his mouth. This coming, as in 2:5, would be another more decisive word of judgment from Jesus, who comes (as here) and speaks through his true prophet. The “sword of his mouth” portrays not a literal sword but the sword of the Spirit speaking the word of God through Jesus; this “fight” will be a war of words, coming from heaven against this wayward church; and it will come soon; the time is near; this is what must happen soon, if they refuse to repent.
Then to the church in Sardis, Jesus again warns that if they do not repent, “I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come” (3:3). While Rev. 16:15, along with Jesus in Mat. 24:42-44 and Paul in 1 Thes. 5:2-4 all use this image of Jesus coming like a thief for Jesus’ final (second) coming, the context here is similar to that of Jesus’ coming in 2:5 and 2:16; it is targeted at this particular church, and depends on whether they repent or not.
When Jesus tells the church in Philadelphia he is coming soon in 3:11, this is different from the previous warnings. For this church, like the one in Smyrna, has patiently endured persecution from “a synagogue of Satan” (3:9; 2:9). Because they have been faithful through this tribulation, Jesus will keep them from the hour of trial which is coming on the whole world (3:10). This hour of judgment coming on the whole world is, as in 14:6-7, the final judgment. Before that, Jesus is coming soon, and will give them their crown, and they will become “pillars” in God’s “temple” in the heavenly new Jerusalem (3:11-12). As Jesus told the church in Smyrna, if they are faithful unto death, he will give them the crown of life (2:10); until then they will suffer for a brief time (brief, compared to their future in heaven). In 3:7-8 Jesus says he has the key of David, and opens what no one can shut, and sets before them (in the near future) an open door. Because most of this oracle is about their future reward in heaven, this open door is the door to heaven (like the open door of 4:1). As Jesus’ keys of death and Hades in 1:18 reveal his power to raise his faithful dead out of Hades, so Jesus’ key of David reveals his royal power to raise them all the way up into heaven’s open door. So his coming soon to them would be to welcome them into heaven, as an encouragement to them to hold fast what they have until this coming.
So what must happen soon is Jesus coming to unfaithful churches and warning them of stronger judgment through prophets like John–or Jesus coming soon to those who remain faithful unto death, coming to welcome them into heaven. For those churches whose doors are closed to Jesus, he knocks at their door; whoever hears and opens the door will find Jesus coming in to him and eating with him (3:20). Churches that repent will discover the risen Jesus coming back into their midst once again.
A lot of old wine has now been consumed celebrating the new year. Such celebrations, however, cannot escape the guilty conscience of the old year; some things never change, like the proverbial death and taxes.
As Jesus faced his imminent death, he shared a cup of wine with his disciples. He revealed that this wine was actually “my blood of the covenant” that is poured out for many for the purpose of forgiveness of sins (Mt. 26:28). Like the blood of the covenant in Ex. 24:8–that Moses sprinkled on Israel to ratify the covenant (and its commands) they had just promised to obey–Jesus’ new wine/blood will ratify his new covenant (and its new commands), and include forgiveness of sins for many. Then on one special day in the future (the risen) Jesus would drink the wine new with his (risen) disciples in his Father’s kingdom (Mt. 26:29).
Among the many that Jesus called to follow him, and become part of his new kingdom of disciples, was a tax collector named Matthew. When Matthew abandoned his profitable, and despised, tax profession, he hosted Jesus and his disciples in a celebration that included other tax collectors and sinners (Mt. 9:9-10). After the Pharisees complained that this “rabbi” was drinking with the wrong crowd, Jesus told them they needed to learn what Hosea meant (in Hos. 6:6) when he wrote (about God), saying, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Mt. 9:11-13).
Hosea and other prophets of the kingdom of Israel complained that the people loved to assemble for sacrifices and offerings that would forgive their sin and pledge their future loyalty. Yet their promised love for God and love for others in need disappeared like the morning dew. Likewise, Jesus portrays his new wine (of love towards many, including despised outcasts) and new wineskins (his new kingdom of disciples) as a contrast with the old wine of sacrifices and fasting by the Pharisees (Mt. 9:14-17). And Jesus again quotes Hos. 6:6–God desires mercy (love), and not sacrifice–after Pharisees complain that his disciples have picked wheat on the sabbath because they are hungry (Mt. 12:1-8). Jesus tells them something greater than the temple, and the sabbath, is now here; showing mercy and love to the needy is greater than sacrifices and fasts in the temple or synagogue.
As in Israel, it is easy for many churches to think they can satisfy God by mere assemblies, where “priestly” hierarchies presumptuously pronounce them forgiven, and praise them for their joining in the solemn rite of “communion.” It is indeed too easy for churches to drink the communion cup and remember Jesus’ sacrifice for forgiveness of sins and at the same time forget his new wine that is full of mercy and love, especially love for the needy and outcasts. Numerous church members suppose their sacrifices of tithes or offerings to build “temples” and pay “priests” will satisfy God; surely their special times of attending these assemblies and accepting these pronouncements and offering their gifts are acceptable sacrifices.
Jesus’ new wine, however, is not compatible with old wine in old wineskins; too many churches look and act like Israel’s former synagogues or temple. Jesus’ mercy and love looked instead like small groups of disciples meeting in homes, sharing food generously and teaching one another faithfully, welcoming and helping the poorest and most needy among them and around them. Yet even in the earliest Jerusalem house churches there were problems with neglecting certain widows; and in Corinthian churches some were eating most of the food and getting drunk before poor members arrived. Churches are not necessarily the new wineskins of Jesus’ new kingdom of disciples.
As the years go by, there are still many poor and needy who are neglected outcasts in various churches. Even some churches that offer them food through food pantries (some of which was thrown out by grocery stores and collected by church volunteers) do so with patronizing: follow our rules (“only one bag a month”), accept our Savior (“his sacrifice will forgive your sins”), and attend our church (“our assemblies are worthy of your support”). If old wineskins “spill” Jesus’ new wine, then new wineskins are needed, wineskins that can preserve and provide the new wine.
Christmas is popular with the crowds; it’s a public holiday and a prolonged season full of festivities. Many who seldom attend churches now join in religious festivals and worship services. Musical and ministerial performances make much of the miracle of Christmas: the baby Jesus, God’s son; the mother Mary, a tender virgin; God’s gifts, salvation and peace for all who believe.
Jesus’ miracles were also popular with the crowds of his day: he healed all kinds of diseases, cast out demons, and fed hungry multitudes. These crowds believed in this miracle worker–and hoped he would do even greater miracles for their nation and world. But Jesus did not trust the excitement of the crowds; his miracles were signs of something greater than they imagined; their imaginations were locked in on personal, family, and national longings.
Jesus’ miracles were signs of his new kingdom; but most did not have eyes to see the mystery (secret) of this powerful and merciful king and kingdom from heaven. For this king was not a Santa Claus giving people all the desires of their heart; and his kingdom was not a national multitude of believers in him. This king from heaven started a new international kingdom of disciples who would faithfully follow him and his lowly, difficult way through the power of his Spirit from heaven.
Unlike the Christmas spirit that inspires crowds to show a little mercy to the needy this one time, Jesus’ Spirit empowers disciples to show generous help to the poor regularly. And unlike the sentimental religious performances that impress–and inspire the hopes and dreams of all the years, this new king and his disciples speak the truth about human pride and power and performance, calling people to follow a poor king who was persecuted by the powers that be. True disciples recognize the greed and pride of the crowds; true disciples see beyond the adorable baby, the awesome miracle, and the religious sentiment; they see the demanding king, whose way is hard; those who find it are few.