Monday of week 33 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Rev 1:1-4; 2:1-5

As we come to the end of the liturgical year, these two weeks will be devoted to readings from the Book of Revelation (or Apocalypse). This is probably the book of the New Testament which causes the most puzzlement to many Christians. Its strange, obscure language seems outrageous and difficult to make sense of. For Christians of some denominations, it is an endlessly fertile ground for all kinds of speculation and interpretation about what is going in our world today.

Although it claims to be written by someone called “John”, it is not now believed that this is John the son of Zebedee and one of the 12 Apostles. Nor is the author necessarily to be identified with the writer(s) of the Gospel and the three Letters of John. Most probably he was a Palestine-born Jew who had fled into exile and a prophetic figure known to the churches in the Asia Minor region of what is now western Turkey.

There is conflicting internal evidence about its date of writing. Many have come to the conclusion that it was composed in stages over a considerable length of time. The early section on the letters to the churches is also thought originally to have been a separate document. In any case, it is believed that the book was written during a period of persecution for the Church. Whether that was a systematic persecution by the Roman authorities (e.g. over insistence on worship of the emperor as a sign of loyalty) or simply the result of harassment by Jewish and non-Christian neighbours is not clear.

The purpose of the book is to boost morale and hope in God for a brighter future that will certainly come.

What causes most difficulty is the apocalyptic style, also found in parts of the Old Testament, most notably in the book of Daniel but also in the prophecy of Ezekiel (and, not surprisingly, these books are regularly quoted in Revelation). This style uses a great deal of symbolism, some of it rather bizarre to our way of thinking as it promises the punishment of enemies and a glorious future for God’s people.

There is no way a contemporary reader can make any sense of this book without the help of a good commentary. Even then, some of the symbolism is still lost to us. At the same time, we should not be put off nor concentrate our attention too much on the difficulties of the symbolism. Some of the most beautiful spiritual passages in the whole New Testament can be found in this book and some of them will appear in our readings. Unfortunately, they remain hidden to many people who are put off by the general language of the book.

Today’s reading consists of two parts: part of the prologue to the book and part of the first of seven letters to churches in the region.

Prologue


The book begins by stating its purpose and intent. It is a “revelation”. This is a translation of the Greek word apokalypsis (‘apokalupsis) from which we get the other English title of the book ‘The Apocalypse’. It is a revelation coming from Jesus Christ and directed to his “servants” concerning events which are going to take place among God’s people. These servants may be fellow-prophets of the author, or may include evangelists and martyrs, or simply all the baptised in the community.

The receiver of the revelation calls himself John and the message, whose veracity the author guarantees, comes from an “angel”. The word ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’ (from the Greek angelos, ‘aggelos) so it may indicate someone sent by Jesus or the Messiah himself sent by God the Father. The word ‘angel’ appears more than 70 times in Revelation.

“Happy the one who reads aloud this prophecy, and happy those who listen to him, if they treasure all that it says.” This is the first of seven beatitudes which are spread through the text of Revelation.*

The word “happy” means much more than being in a good mood. The Greek adjective makarios (makarios) includes also the idea of being blessed with good fortune. Not only the present but a future, enduring happiness is also implied.

Fortunate are those, then, who listen to the author’s “prophecy”. ‘Prophecy’ is less a matter of forecasting future events than of communicating a message or teaching from God. That teaching may include a warning about the way God’s people are misbehaving but it can also be a message of hope for a brighter and happier future – one much needed by those hearing this message. The reason for the hope is that the “Time” is close, that is, the day of Jesus’ return.

Let us, too, listen to what this book has to say. Although it was written at a particular place and time in the history of the Church, it has a message valid for every age.

Letters to the seven churches


The author, who calls himself John, now addresses seven churches or communities in seven different cities in the Roman Province of Asia (located in present-day western Turkey). These churches were located about 80 km (50 miles) apart from each other and formed roughly a circle around the city of Ephesus on the coast. The cities which gave their names to these churches are: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. We will just read sections from the letters to Ephesus, Sardis and Laodicea. It seems the whole text of Revelation was sent to each of these churches (1:11). But it also seems that this section of Revelation began life as a separate piece of writing because, unlike the rest of the book, it is not apocalyptic in style.

John begins with an address and a greeting which makes use of many Old Testament allusions suggesting the glorious return of the King-Messiah and his future reign over God’s people in fulfilment of the promise made to David. This is basically what the whole book is about. Only part of this greeting is included in our reading.

He opens with a traditional form of greeting, wishing the churches “grace and peace”. He only uses the word “grace” (charis, caris) twice in the book, while Paul uses it more than 100 times in his letters. “Grace” is that gratuitously-given love of God as experienced in our lives.

The greeting comes from “him who is and who was and who is to come”. This is a common title in Jewish literature developed from the words spoken by Yahweh to Moses from the burning bush: “I AM who I AM” (Exod 3:14-15).

The letters are more like proclamations from a Persian king or Roman emperor, each follows the same pattern and, unlike the rest of the book, are highly didactic.

Each proclamation consists of seven common characteristics:

1, destination;

2, the command to write;

3, the archaic “thus says” formula (“these are the words of”);

4, titles of Christ (largely based on the vision in 1:9-20);

5, the “I know” narrative;

6, the proclamation formula (“let anyone who has an ear listen”), and

7, the victory formula (“whoever conquers” and similar phrases).

Moral exhortation, usually absent from apocalypses, permeates these proclamations. The general pattern in the letters is commendation, complaint and correction.

Although the letters are clearly addressed to specific churches in Asia Minor, some see in the seven letters a preview of church history in its downward course towards the tepidity of the church at Laodicea. Others interpret them as characteristic of various kinds of Christian congregations that have existed from John’s day until the present time. And certainly, each local church today could do well to see whether what is said here applies to them.

What is significant in these letters is that they reveal churches which have both their strengths and their weaknesses, quite similar to the situation in our own day. The Church has never, at any stage in its history, been anything but flawed. And it will never be otherwise.

Letter to the church at Ephesus


Our reading now jumps to chapter 2 and takes up the letter to the Christian community at Ephesus. It is presented not as a personal message from John but as a message from God which John is simply handing on. It is addressed “to the angel of the church in Ephesus.” Here the word may mean the personification of the prevailing spirit of the church.

Ephesus was the biggest of the seven cities and capital of the province. The message comes from the one “who holds the seven stars”, that is, the Son of Man, who is surrounded by the “seven golden lampstands”, that is, the seven churches. The phrase reminds us of Jesus’ admonition that the Christian community be like a lamp on a lampstand (and not hidden away) to give light to those around it (cf. Matt 5:13-16).

Following a pattern found in all the letters, John begins by praising the Ephesians. He commends the way they have endured hardships in living their faith and for their exposing false teachers posing as apostles. This could refer to a group known as Nicolaitans. These belonged to a now unknown Christian sect in Ephesus and Pergamum; they may also be connected with a ‘Jezebel’ and her followers mentioned in the letter to the church at Thyatira (2:18ff).

However, John also regrets that the Ephesians now show less love than before. This includes both their love for Christ and their love for each other. He concludes by exhorting them to go back to their first fervour. They should remember the earlier sinful state from which they had come and return to the high standards they had set themselves at the time of the first conversion.

If they do not change their ways, the Elder will come and remove their “lampstand”, that is, their status as a Christian community. If they continue as they are now, they are no longer shining the light of Christ to the world around them.

We, too, can point to the heroism of our predecessors in maintaining the faith through many trials and sufferings. It is because of them that we have the faith today. But, in these easier times, our commitment to Christ and the Gospel can weaken. It is not difficult to drop out and no one will be very shocked. People do not care very much whether we are “religious” or not.

We have lost much of that vision which inspired our predecessors but it can be recovered. It needs to be recovered if our church is to be truly a lampstand giving light to its surroundings.

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* For convenience, the complete list of seven Beatitudes are given here. However, only one other of them, the 6th, appears in our liturgy readings.

The seven beatitudes in Revelation:

1. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it. (1:3)

2. Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord. (14:13)

3. Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed [with the teaching of the Gospel], not going about naked and exposed to shame. (16:15)

4. Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb. (19:9)

5. Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. (20:6)

6. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book. (22:7)


7. Blessed are those who wash their robes so that they may have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. (22:14)]

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