Revelation 4 and 5: Divine Council and Christ’s Reign

Background

As mentioned earlier, John arranged his writing into two major parts based on the motif of judgment. The first part deals with the judgment (or warning/encouragement) of the Church. Some of the seven churches of Revelation received rather stern warnings and threats of judgment. For instance, certain members of the Pergamum church have embraced false teaching, leading them to sin similarly as ancient Israelites did when Balaam enticed them towards “food sacrificed to idols” and they “committed sexual immorality” (2:14). In response, Jesus says, in John’s vision, that these members of the Pergamum church should repent, or he will visit them soon and “fight against them with the sword of his mouth” (2:16). That sword kills (Rev 19:21). Similarly, Jesus warns the Philadelphian church about the possibility of losing their crowns (3:11), if they do not continue to hold fast to sound doctrine.

Chapters 6 to 20 contain the second division of the book, which details the judgment of the world, following that of the churches. But this arrangement leaves Chapters 4 and 5 hanging. Why might John do that? Among other things, he does so to make a subtle theological point of presenting Jesus as Yahweh. 

Continue Reading

Who Are the Angels of the Seven Churches in Revelation? (Series Part 2)

In Part 1, I wrote on some general points to be aware of in reading the book of Revelation and provided an example from the first Chapter of the book. Here, I want to say a few things about Chapters 2 and 3, the chapters containing the seven letters addressed to the seven churches in Asia Minor in the first century.

First, let’s say something about how John structures the book around the theme of judgement. 1 Peter 4:17 expresses an idea about judgement beginning with God’s household, the church. John takes the idea very seriously in the way Revelation is structured. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on “judgment” or warning/encouragement of the churches, while the rest of the book is about judgements /warning of the world.

Perhaps the most interesting question in these chapters is the identity of the seven angels of the churches in today’s western Turkey. There are basically two interpretations in the literature: the angels are either humans or divine beings. The text identifies each of these beings as an “angelos” which merely means “messenger.” In the Bible, this term can refer to both humans or divine beings.

Human Messengers?

This may be the commoner way to read the text. This reading sees each angel as the leader of each of the seven local churches. That is, John addresses these leaders in the letters that are likely expected to be read to the whole congregation. The strength of this approach lies in being a more natural reading, but it has its natural difficulties:

1. It’s probably anachronistic to suppose that each of the seven local churches had one leader (like we do today) in the first century. The model of the Jerusalem church was such that there was a plurality of leaders in the church (Acts 15, Galatians 2:9). If these Asia Minor churches also had a plurality of leaders, the human messenger interpretation will not work.

2. This interpretation suggests that Jesus specially cares somewhat more about the leaders of a church than the rest of the members. ‭‭Revelation‬ ‭1:20‬ explains the vision thus:

“As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”

Whereas Jesus walks among the churches (which this interpretation would read as church members minus the pastor), he holds the pastors in his right hand. It’s strange, to say the least, that the leaders of the churches are not properly part of the churches that they lead.

3. The contents of each letter reads like they are addressed to a suffering/threatened congregation. Hence, Jesus tells the Smyrna church, for instance, that the devil is about to throw “some of you” into prison (2:10). He also says this to the Pergamum church, “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.” (2:13). Considering that the congregations as a whole suffered the threats and actual acts of violence, it doesn’t make much sense, as spelled out above, that the church leaders are isolated (and protected?) in Jesus’s right hand.

Divine Messengers?

Another way to read the text is to take the angels as divine beings. John uses “angel” (or it’s plural form) 67 times in Revelation. All occasions non-controversially refer to divine beings except the 7 instances of chapters 2 and 3. This observation shifts the argument in favour of the angels being divine. If that reading is right, it implies that each of the seven churches has an angel assigned to it. But what in the world (or heaven) would it mean to address a letter about human affairs to a divine being? Admittedly, this is not the most natural way to read the letter. However, there are good reasons to do so.

1. We already observed that taking the angels as human messengers doesn’t produce a wrinkles-free reading. Besides, as already pointed out, the other 60 times that John uses the terms, he refers to divine beings. It’s, therefore, likely that the debated 7 instances also have divine referents.

2. This is a good place to remind ourselves that genre matters. Revelation is an apocalypse (indeed, “revelation” means “apocalypse”) featuring multi-headed creatures, a flying woman, and a talking statue among other things. In other words, we should not take literalism too far in such texts as Revelation.

Consider the following additional points. Did John send the individual letters to respective churches or did each church get to see the letters addressed to the other churches (much like we today read the letters to all the churches)? A wooden literal reading would require the former option, even though the book doesn’t say that John despatches the letters individually. Also, such a wooden, literal reading might lead us to believe that the churches never get to see the remaining contents of Revelation (chapters 4 to 22) since these aren’t church-specific and are not included in the letters.

There’s another interesting point to note about a literalistic reading. If we suppose that each church gets it’s own letter and does not see the letters addressed to other churches, then the promises/rewards at the end of each letter becomes specific to the local churches. So, the victorious Christians in Ephesus get to eat from the tree of life, those in Smyrna get to avoid the second death (lake of fire), the Pergamumians get some stored mannas and white stones, Thyatiran believers get a morning star and rule over the nations, the ones in Sardis get to be clothed in white garments and their names professed by Jesus before God, the Philadelphian assembly become pillars in God’s temple with God’s name and the name of the new city written on them, and finally the Laodicean cohort get to sit with Jesus on his throne.

I see two problems with such a reading. First, it seems prohibited by the formulaic refrain attached to the announcement of each reward, “…let him hear what the spirit says to the churchES.” In other words, presumably, whatever the Spirit promises to one church, he promises to all churches.

Second, extreme literalism (involving rewards being specific to each local church) would suggest unfairness in the distribution of rewards. Some victors in the churches will rule over nations and sit on Jesus’s throne while others get white garments. If the Sardis church were like the Celestial Church of Christ, one can readily sympathize with the victors’ disappointment – having worn white garments all their lives. It is also worth noting here that John would later explicitly say there is no temple in the new heaven and earth (21:22) which makes one wonder just what the rewards for the Philadelphians are – under a wooden, literal reading.

For these reasons, it’s more likely that the letters are symbolic and that John uses them in some literary way to communicate something to the (first-century) recipients of his book. What might that be?

There is a candidate argued for by the scholar, Michael Heiser. Now is not the time to fully spell out the view, but the following sketch should be sufficient.

As noted in Part 1, John often makes theological points through subtle moves often requiring a solid understanding of the Old Testament, especially books like Ezekiel and Daniel. In the Old Testament, ancient Israel were the chosen people of God whom God made into a kingdom of priests, cut a covenant with, and regularly met with in a temple. By the middle of the first century (likely before John wrote Revelation), all of these features – chosen people (1 Peter 2:9, 10), temple (1 Corinthians 3:16), covenant (Hebrews 8:13, 9:15), and priesthood (1 Peter 2:5, 9) – had already been applied to Jesus’s followers. The church had become a new Israel with the task of revealing God to the world just as ancient Israel was tasked to do.

But there is another thing ancient Israel had. The nation had its own angel, the archangel Michael. Daniel 12:1 describes Michael as the prince, an angelic term, in charge of Daniel’s people, Israel. In fact, Daniel 12 is one of the passages that John heavily appropriates in Revelation. Here are some of the features of the passage that John uses in his writing: salvation for people whose names are found in the book (Daniel 12:1), the dead rising to everlasting life or condemnation (Daniel 12:3), the phrase “time, times, and half a time” (Daniel 12:7), and 1290 days (Daniel 12:11). Hence, it’s not altogether unlikely that John may be theologizing with the angel of Israel element of Daniel 12 morphed into the angel of each of the churches. If the old Israel had an assigned angel, it makes sense that a new Israel should do too.

If that reading is right, it would be John’s way of connecting the heavenly sons of God to the human children of God. The affairs of the Church and the task of preaching the gospel involve both kinds of God’s children. Elsewhere in Revelation, we are told about angels who self-identify as fellow servants with John and other believers (19:10, 22:9). Hebrews 1:14 also says that angels are closely tied to the Church’s ministries.

In light of all these points, I think taking the angels as divine beings (or one divine being?) makes better sense of the text.

Continue Reading

Reading Revelation Right (Series Part 1)

The Book of Revelation has been on my mind for a few months now. I have read and re-read the book and consulted with some of the best specialists in modern scholarship. Some things I knew, but there have been so much more I was ignorant of. I am just gonna say a few things here. (I may also walk through the whole book, picking out specific nuggets I found interesting.)

1. If John wrote Revelation as a graduate schoolwork today, he no doubt would get an “F.” No, it would not be so much because his work would be difficult to understand – Immanuel Kant probably surpassed John on that point and is still praised for it. John would score an F because of plagiarism, failing to properly cite his sources. (Of course, John did not do any wrong per the literary standards of his day.)

2. Let us get the simple hermeneutics point out of the way. John wrote to encourage young churches near the first century. So whatever John wrote about was something that, in principle, his audience could/would have understood. Hence, there are no cryptic references to helicopters, missiles, China, Russia, Putin, Trump or any of the other recent lazy readings.

3. Indeed, there is cryptic messaging in the book -it was John’s way of critiquing the empire without its knowledge. The cryptic messaging is of a very different sort from what people now tend to imagine. For example, John primarily referred to Rome as Babylon, and that move is itself pregnant with a whole worldview and dense theology.

4. Virtually every sentence in Revelation is an allusion (as a solid Study Bible would reveal. See the ESV for a taste) – mostly to the Old Testament but sometimes to Second Temple Era Jewish literature or Greco-Roman literature. Yet, John often does not prepare his readers for the allusion. Even worse, John often combines materials from two or more sources with no warning whatsoever. It is a rarity to come across a direct quotation in Revelation as one would see in Paul’s writing or Matthew’s.

5. John assumes SO MUCH of his readers in writing Revelation. (To be fair to him, he expects the book to be read aloud perhaps by leaders of the churches. See Rev 1:1-3). The modern-day reader is expected to know her Old Testament back and forth, inside-out. There is about zero chance of understanding Revelation without a solid understanding of the Old Testament in its Jewish context. (Perhaps this, in John’s mind, is fair because the Old Testament was THE Bible of Jesus, Paul, James, John, AND everyone else. The New Testament is, in many ways, merely inspired commentary on the Old Testament.)

6. In fact, Revelation contains more Old Testament references than any other book of the New Testament. Some of the Old Testament books referenced are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Number, Deuteronomy, Judges, books of Samuel, the Kings, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Job, the major and minor prophets. John, however, did not use these books equally. G. K. Beale, one of the specialists on the book of Revelation writes in one of his works on Revelation, “Roughly more than half the references are from the Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, and in proportion to its length Daniel yields the most” (60). Put another way, without a solid understanding of the Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah (and many more) in their wider contexts, one has close to zero chance of understanding Revelation.

One Selected Example

In Revelation 1:13-15, John describes the person he sees in the vision talking to him in this way:

“and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters.”

This is one of those instances that would earn John an” “F” in today’s scholarship. In this seemingly boring description, John combines at least two references with a subtle twist. The first reference (which John said nothing about but that surely informed the writing) is from Daniel 10. Not surprisingly, it is also a passage about a vision.

This passage is itself somewhat confusing regarding the number of actors. But Daniel says he saw a vision dated to the third year of Cyrus’s reign and that a man spoke with him in that vision. Here is how Daniel described who he saw in 10:5-6:

“I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of fine gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like topaz, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude.”

The similarities should be apparent. It may be interesting to note that, among the dissimilarities, John describes the voice as that of the sound of rushing waters where Daniel says sound of a multitude. However, these descriptions may be saying the same thing since the Bible often describes a multitude of people in water metaphors.

But what has John done in his appropriation of the Danielic vision? A comparison of the two descriptions will reveal certain differences. For instance, “the hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow” in John’s description is missing from the Daniel 10 vision. Where did that come from? It came from an earlier Danielic vision in chapter 7:9,

“As I looked,

“thrones were set in place,

and the Ancient of Days took his seat.

His clothing was as white as snow;

the hair of his head was white like wool.

His throne was flaming with fire,

and its wheels were all ablaze.”

So, John has transferred a description originally used of the Ancient of Days in Daniel to the Son of Man talking to him in the vision. This is one of the more subtle, besides the explicit, ways that John describes Jesus as Yahweh in Revelation. (I have already dealt with Daniel 7 as a central data point for the idea of the divinity of Jesus elsewhere.)

By blending boring descriptions together (with no citations), John makes theological and polemic moves. This is the sort of things he does in the entire book – and that is why a close reading and sound knowledge of the Old Testament (as well as the wider contexts) is necessary for a decent understanding of Revelation.

Reference

Beale, G. K. John’s Use of the Old Testament in Revelation. T&T Clark, 2015.

Continue Reading

Did Paul Call for Women’s Silence? (Series Part 3, Finale)

There is yet another problematic passage in the Corinthian correspondence besides the 1 Corinthians 11 passage that we have considered. It is the passage people have used to argue that Paul sanctions an exclusively male church leadership: 1 Corinthians 14:33 – 36, reproduced below:

For God is not a God of disorder but of peace – as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to enquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?

Scholars have observed that this passage gives off a First-Century Jewish synagogue undertone, and, of course, Christianity was essentially a sect of Judaism at the time. A typical synagogue meeting would have men and women seated in different sections, and women were not allowed to speak in those services. Married women could not even ask questions of their husbands during service because of the seating arrangement; apparently, they had to wait until they got home. 

Continue Reading

Spiritually Gifted Men Were the Problem (Series Part 2)

Paul Quotes the Corinthians

As emphasized earlier, we have much-needed data missing from the Corinthian correspondence. Scholars have presented several possible explanations, but not one satisfactorily answers the text’s questions. Each explanatory schema answers a few questions while neglecting the rest. In truth, we may only be able to fully understand the text if archaeology comes to the rescue once more.

Continue Reading

Man is the “Head” of the Woman? (Series Part 1)

Background

First Corinthians 11 is one of those Bible passages that no reader can forget about in a hurry. It is the kind of passage you read and wonder about afterward. The chapter is significant not just for the challenging issues it raises for scholars but also for the impact it continues to have in churches. After all, the passage is full of apostolic pronouncements for the global church. First Corinthians 11 is the famous chapter about hair covering and the claim that “neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” —a passage that the church has subsequently used to treat churchgoing women as “others.” Of course, the othering of women, based on this passage and other similar ones, would not be problematic if, indeed, that is the kind of thing Paul had in mind. 

Continue Reading

What’s Natural Theology? The Example of the Moral Argument

Natural Theology is the branch of theology that seeks to argue for God (or theism) solely from observed facts and experiences. A natural theologian may reference the bible in her work without assuming special knowledge or revelation. She may cite a bible passage but only like any other book. It is worth reiterating that natural theology is a natural enterprise. It is a human endeavor that seeks to employ reason to argue for God’s existence. To that end, two points are worth accentuating here.

First, the arguments of natural theology are not infallible or immutable. A natural theologian does not take a theistic argument to be on the level of a divinely inspired text. Theistic arguments rely on observed facts and experiences. As facts change, relevant theistic arguments must accommodate the changes to remain valid. Indeed, original arguments, such as the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument and the Ontological Argument of Saint Anselm, might be easily refuted today without appropriate modifications. Second, an unconvinced person, theist or otherwise, may reject a theistic argument. Once again, the deliverances of natural theology do not claim divine inspiration. Besides, it is difficult to imagine how one may affirm an argument that one does not adequately understand. (Of course, one’s inability to understand an argument does not count against it.) I once had such an experience.

The Moral Argument is one of the more popular theistic arguments around. One form of the argument goes like this:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

For several years, I could not get down with this argument. I knew it was a logically airtight argument—the conclusion can’t be wrong if the premises are correct. But I felt like the first premise was contrived, nonetheless. Indeed, I thought the premise was as flawed as saying, “if the moon is made of Amala, then God exists.” It was not until I studied the work of the systematic theologian and philosopher William Lane Craig that I finally could grasp what was going on with the argument. (Interestingly, William Craig himself also had a similar reservation about this argument and was helped by the work of another philosopher.) It turns out that the argument is not defective. Premise one posits an explanation for objective morality, and I was somewhat slow to grasp it. Even with a good understanding of the argument, someone may still find grounds to reject it, as we shall see.

Moral duties have to do with something right or wrong, while moral values have to do with good or bad. The difference is not trivial—something may be good for you but not right for you. Here is an example to explain what “objective” means. It is not only wrong to torture babies for fun or rape someone; it is objectively wrong to do so. By that, I mean there never was, and never will be, a time when it was not wrong to rape or torture babies. Of course, this does not mean that some people or cultures have not thought it right to do these things. Also, this is not a holier-than-thou statement that seeks to enforce my personal view on everyone else. Instead, it would still be wrong to rape or torture babies even if I did not exist. Hence, “objective,” as used here, really means “regardless of what people say or think.”

Most people grant that objective morality exists. Indeed, it is the underlying basis of ethical theories—however, each ethical theory handles moral problems differently. For instance, utilitarianism, the moral theory that urges us to seek the greatest happiness for the maximum number of people, presupposes objective morality. Suppose there was no objective morality binding on all. In that case, one might ask why we should care about anyone else’s happiness. Similarly, the Kantian ethical theory that forbids us from using people as a means to an end also presupposes objective reality. Again, one might otherwise ask why one should not use people as a means to an end, especially if one can.

However, a minority of people deny the existence of objective moral values and duties. To some of them, morality is subjective. That is, it is people-dependent. One culture may have reasons to normalize rape, for instance. And it would be arrogant for another culture that sees rape as wrong to consider the other culture as being wrong. Essentially, morality is what a culture decides it to be for these people. While we may refute this position, the point, for now, is that some people, a tiny minority, deny the existence of objective moral values and duties. And for such people, the moral argument fails. The apologist may need to resort to other arguments–and there are about thirty of them.

As demonstrated, natural theology uses reason alone to argue for the theistic God, with no appeals to special knowledge or divine revelation. To this end, natural theology is a branch of philosophy. It is worth noting that the arguments of natural theology do not pick out a specific deity—Olodumare, Yahweh, Allah, or whoever. They seek to establish, in a general sense, that some transcendent God exists. Perhaps, more importantly, the deliverances of natural theology make it uneasy for someone to dismiss religion. Gone are the days when intellectuals could dismiss religion without engaging with the truth claims. A non-theist would have to interact with the arguments to be intellectually respectable today.

Continue Reading

Crowther’s Critics’ Cardinal Error (Series Part 3, Finale)

We have told the story of Bishop Ajayi’s early life. The teenage Ajayi was captured by his compatriots and sold into slavery. But for the interception of a British squadron, Ajayi would have been sold in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and might never have been known—just like the innumerable millions who perished in that grand evil scheme. It is hard to imagine that Ajayi, especially as he would later have learned about what could have been, would not have felt like he owed his life to Britain. Not only was he saved by British sailors, but he was also educated and introduced to Christianity by British missionaries. Considering the history of Britain at the time, we may assume that racist and hegemonic inclinations tainted the Christian education he received. So, it should not be shocking if we find vestiges of eurocentrism in Crowther’s works. What should be more critical is what Crowther willfully believed and defended.

Continue Reading

Èṣù Ẹlẹ́gbara and the Evolution of Satan (Series Part 2)

Èṣù in Yoruba Metaphysics: A Brief Note

Traditionally, Yoruba conceives of the world as an interconnected three-tiered cosmos: Ọ̀run (meaning, heaven), Aiyé (meaning, the earth) Ilẹ̀ (meaning, underground; netherworld). Ọlọ́run (literally, “heaven’s owner”) inhabits Orun with the over four hundred gods in the Yoruba pantheon, many of whom walked the earth as humans with supernatural abilities. Ọlọ́run, also known as Ẹlẹ́dàá (literally, “the creator”), is the supreme being. Aiyé is the world of humans, and Ilẹ̀ is the world of departed souls, especially of ancestors. The dividing wall between Ọ̀run and Ilẹ̀, especially regarding deified souls, is quite ethereal.

Continue Reading

Bishop Ajayi Crowther and the Yorùbá Bible (Series Part 1)

Background

Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther’s contributions to African Christianity are well attested in the Christian world, especially in the Global South. In his native land, however, the Bishop is mainly seen as a villain than a hero. He is seen as an able instrument of colonialism used to undermine Yoruba metaphysics. His significant achievement, a Yoruba version of the Bible, is critically described as a courier of “Euro-Christian ideas, beliefs, and cultural logics” (Adefarakan, 45) written in the Yoruba language. Among the adherents of the traditional Yoruba religion, Bishop Crowther is a traitor who willfully allowed himself to be used in the corruption of what he once held dear.

Continue Reading