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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Revelation Reflections: Verse 1:1b

1:1b "He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John,"

In the second half of verse one, the theme of revelation (in the general sense) is continued. There is some difficulty in identifying with certainty the agents in this verse, but the general idea is straightforward. The two most likely interpretations are as follows: 1) "He [God] made it known by sending his [God's] angel [Jesus functioning as a messenger] to his [God's or Jesus'] servant John;" or 2) "He [Jesus] made it known by sending his angel [an angelic spirit messenger] to his [Jesus'] servant John."

I prefer the second interpretation for several reasons. In the first few chapters, and even in the immediate context, Jesus Christ is specifically named many times and is never, unless this case is the exception, referred to as an "angel." He seems to be distinguished from the angels referred to elsewhere, such as the "angels of the churches." Linguistically it also makes sense for Jesus to be the one who "made it known" in v. 1b since 1) in v. 1a Jesus is given the revelation from God for the purpose, it seems, of His (Jesus') "showing" to "his" (God's or Jesus') servants the things soon to take place, and since 2) it is the "revelation of Jesus Christ," which as we noted is best understood as meaning the "revelation from or belonging to Jesus Christ." Therefore the subject of v. 1b, the primary revealer, is best understood as Jesus, not as God (the Father). This makes the "angel" a being who belongs to Jesus (and therefore probably a normal angel, and obviously not Jesus). The best evidence, though, comes from the end of the book, where in 22:16a, Jesus says in fairly plain language, "I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches."

It is also noteworthy to consider that in the genre of apocalyptic, it is common for a prophet or a seer to be guided through a series of fantastic visions by an angelic being. There are a number of examples of this in the Old Testament, including episodes in the books of Daniel and Zechariah (from each of which much imagery is drawn in the Revelation). It is possible that Jesus Himself mainly fulfills this role in the Revelation, and indeed it is mainly Jesus who speaks to John and leads him through visions in the first several chapters. This is the one greatest weakness of the view I have tentatively taken here. It is not until much later in the book that an "angel" who is clearly not to be identified with Jesus is explicitly said to "show" John anything. This can perhaps be accounted for, though, by speculating (and we can only speculate on this) that an angel did in fact lead John through all of the visions, but John did not specifically mention this angel at each point because he was so enraptured by the visions themselves, and by the glory of the victorious Lamb on whom the visions focus.

In any case, the fact that there are several levels of mediation--that the content of the revelation which ultimately comes from God the Father first passes through the hands of Jesus and possibly another angel before it even reaches John, who in turn, as we will see, writes it down and sends it to seven churches--highlights the transcendence of God and the way in which He "condescends" or "comes down" to communicate and have fellowship with His people. In the language of Reformed confessions of the 17th century, without God's voluntary condescension in covenanting and relating with His people by means of His self-revelation (through prophets and the Scriptures, for instance), His people would have no "fruition" of Him--no ability to perceive or recognize Him or reason to Him.

In His essential being, God is utterly different than the world He has created. Creation is limited, changeable, and dependent or contingent, while He is unlimited, unchangeable, and totally independent in His essential being. This gives philosophers and theologians of all stripes hives when they try and put it all together in a consistent metaphysic or doctrine of God. How can these things interact and be reconciled with each other without destroying the essential properties of either? Can a timeless, changeless, all-determining God remain who He is as God and yet truly and meaningfully create and then interact with His creation, with all of its contingencies and historical progression?

While there is inevitable mystery here at some point, the biblical and historical-theological paradigm for beginning to properly answer these questions has been there all along, although often ignored. In an orthodox formulation of the doctrine of the person of Christ, the historic Christian Church (ever since the Council of Chalcedon in 451) has always confessed that Jesus Christ is one person with two distinct but inseparably joined natures, a human nature and a divine nature. Each nature retains all of its essential properties (so the human nature cannot become omnipresent, nor can the divine nature be emptied of omniscience, etc.), and the two natures are truly joined together forever in one person. The one person is the Logos, the eternal and divine Son of God. It is not as though the incarnate person Jesus Christ is a person other than the eternal Word, the Second Person of the Trinity. Rather, Jesus' personal identity as the Word and the eternal Son of God is fundamental to His being, and He came down, or "condescended" to take on an additional, human nature, in order to relate to us and ultimately to accomplish redemption on the cross and in the resurrection.

This is how God has always related to His creation while remaining the eternal, infinite, independent God in Himself. The incarnation of Christ was a one-of-a-kind, unique event, to be sure, but in a way it was also nothing more than the redemptive-historical culmination of God's consistent pattern of "coming down" (cf. Ex. 3:8) to relate to His people in ways they can understand. Because God takes upon Himself attributes that are not essential to who He is, in order to relate with His creation, He can truthfully speak of having a dynamic relationship with His covenant people, ebbing and flowing with them and truly responding to their faithfulness or sin with appropriate judgments or rewards, even while He is the One who decreed all of it--whatsoever comes to pass.

This is the way to understand passages that speak of things like God "relenting" or "changing His mind." It's not mere anthropomorphism, as many theologians have argued. Neither is it only a change "from our perspective." Rather, such verses express truthful things about God as He acts in relationship with His people, even if these things are in tension with what we understand God to be like in His essential divine nature as the great and eternal "I AM."

So it makes good sense for God to use a number of mediators, both in the administration of His covenants (so Moses and Jesus are both called covenant "mediators" in Scripture), and more broadly in all of the prophetic material He reveals to His people through His spokesmen, the prophets and apostles. God is also often seen in Scripture employing His angelic ministers to carry out His purposes on the earth. Jesus is helped by angels a couple of times during His earthly ministry. The Mosaic Covenant is said by Paul to have been "ordained" or "put in place" through angels (Gal. 3:19). And, as we have already noted, angels sometimes guide prophets through series of visions.

We as God's people should be both awed and touched by the fact of God's gracious condescension in revealing Himself and His purposes to us through prophets and angels. We should be awed by the fact that He is so high and lifted up in His divine glory that no mere creature could ever attain to the knowledge of Him in his or her own strength or wisdom (much less His favor, given the reality of sin); and we should be touched by the fact that in God's tender lovingkindness and covenant faithfulness He has condescended and ultimately come so far down as to, in the person of His Son, have been crucified in the place of unworthy sinners, to bring them to Himself in salvation.

It was a great mercy to the first century Christians to whom the Revelation was addressed that God revealed to them events that were to transpire within their lifetime, so that they could be prepared--prepared to triumph over evil by remaining steadfast and faithful through intense Jewish and Roman persecutions, even if it meant death. While the Revelation does not directly address (many) events in our future today, wicked rulers still exist today, persecutions exist today, and the need for perseverance in the faith exists today as ever. Therefore it is a great mercy of God that He condescended to inspire the Revelation and include it in the holy canon of Scripture, from which His Church could draw encouragement and instruction for ages to come.

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