Lenten blog | March 23, 2023
Christian prophets, that sounds strange
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for March 23rd: Psalm 130; Ezekiel 1:1-3; 2:8 - 3:3; and Revelation 10:1-11. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
The Book of Revelation is written after the composition of the Pauline Epistles. In those writings, there are offices of bishops, deacons, presbyters and apostles. The Pauline churches have created structure. This structure was originally charismatic, based on recognized gifts of the Spirit. As time moved forward, those offices took on a more formalized pattern. In that same area, however, Revelation refers to only two offices: apostles and prophets. Apostles are referred to as belonging to the past. Their time has come to a close. They have laid the foundations on which the church is built (cf. 21:14).
Prophets, on the other hand, have a role and an importance in the book’s present. Jurgen Roloff writes in the volume “Revelation” in the series “A Continental Commentary,” “He [John, the author of Revelation] makes their [the prophets’] task and mission in 10:1-11 into a theme of detailed reflection, by which it is clear that he is referring to his own role. It may be concluded from this that John was presumably the leading member of a group of prophets that saw its purpose in influencing directly the churches with the testimony entrusted to them.” (p. 8-9) This is the passage the church shares with us today in the Lectionary.
The church of the Book of Revelation is well aware of the local Pauline churches, but they have chosen to approach the idea of church differently. Theirs remains a thoroughly charismatic church. Authority comes from the Spirit mediated through the prophets, which is what is visualized for us in today’s passage.
Revelation almost didn’t make into the New Testament canon because its writings are uniquely strange. The style is apocalyptic. It is a writing for when things are so bad that little to no hope exists that change is possible. The only avenue imaginable for God’s victory is the total collapse of the known world and its replacement by the reign of God. There is a problem though. An apocalyptic like the Book of Revelation envisions God’s conquest, but it is written during extremely hostile and dangerous times. This is the reason for the strangeness of the prophecies. Their message must be hidden in a sense. John cannot come out against the rule and worship of Caesars while writing during the time of the rule and worship of Caesars – not if he wants to remain alive and more importantly if his writings are to have a chance to be shared.
Roloff and other scholars argue for a composition date late in the 90’s for Revelation. The totality of the Roman state is expressed in the imperial cult of the Caesars, that the Roman ruler is a manifestation of a Roman god. This cult was not systematically propagated until late in the reign of the Emperor Domitian, which would be the late 90’s. Revelation is not some coded prediction for the far distant future, even if it is used like this still today. Revelation has been used to demonize many an evil state throughout history, and yet history continues. The reign of God did not intervene. Please take any Revelation-based predictions with a grain of salt.
What we have in Revelation is a church guided by Christian prophets. They are dealing with an imperial cult that seems all-powerful. The Caesar demands to be called “our Lord and God.” Christians and the church of the Book of Revelation are trying to live their faith in Jesus in this threatening environment. The prophet shares that to receive the prophecy is at first as the taste of honey in the mouth, but then the message of the prophecy is as bitter as an upset stomach. To interact with God, in other words, is a joy, but the message God shares is a burden.
Our Lenten closeness to Christ is a blessing, but the remembrance of Jesus’ suffering is bitter. The awesome love of God that is no clearer than at the cross cannot obscure the reality of Jesus’ pain and suffering. We should not dull the torture that Jesus endured physically, nor His psychological distress from the denial and abandonment of those closest to Him, nor even His spiritual struggle as He tries to fathom the will of God in all this, for remember in the earliest Gospel Jesus dies with nothing but a loud scream. (Mark 15:37) Lent calls upon us to savour the sweetness of God’s loving salvation at the cross, but we cannot simply ignore or rush past the devastation of the cross.
We are getting closer to Golgotha. I hope and pray that our Lenten journey is preparing us to meet up with the crucified Saviour and the ineffable love His cross proves.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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