Posts Tagged ‘Satan’

Doubt and authenticity

August 27, 2017

Pentecost 12 – 2017

Matthew 16:13-24

Marian Free

 In the name of God who respects our doubts and welcomes our questions. Amen.

Some time ago I met a man who was, I think, in his fifties. We were at a conference on spirituality in the workplace and after dinner we were discussing the opening paper. I mentioned that I was disappointed that the speaker used the platform to sideline the Christian faith (while at the same time using some of Christianity’s key concepts to make his point). My conversation partner (Jack) defended the speaker and in doing so shared something of his own story. He had, he said, attended an Anglican boarding school in country Queensland. At age fifteen Jack had asked a teacher to explain the virgin birth. The teacher’s reply was that the boy had to accept the virgin birth by faith. As Jack recounted the story, his eyes welled with tears. He had been a young person who was keen to understand and desperate to believe. The response of his teacher left him feeling that he been fobbed off, not taken seriously. Worse, Jack felt that questions were out-of-place and this led him to query the depth of his own faith – which, the teacher had implied, was in some way lacking.

Obviously this man had been a serious and thoughtful young man seeking for answers. A consequence of the teacher’s dismissive and unsatisfactory response was that my new friend abandoned his search for truth within the Christian faith and over, the course of his life had explored alternative ways to meet what was obviously a deep spiritual need. Some thirty years later, his tears clearly indicated his feeling of betrayal and the pain that he had experienced as a result of the dismissive reaction to his questioning and exploration.

I still can’t think of Jack’s story without a sense of grief – for Jack and for the church that has lost so many people because they have been made to feel that they do not belong. A common mistake from both within and outside religious traditions is to confuse faith with certainty. It is sometimes assumed that people who confess a particular faith adhere to if not rigid, certainly to reasonably fixed ideas. From this point of view doubt and or questioning can be interpreted as a lack of faith. Confusing faith with certainty and questioning with a lack of faith has served to exclude and alienate many who, with a little encouragement might have come to see that while there are sometimes no easy answers that asking questions can be the beginning of a deep and satisfying experience of the relationship with God.

The idea that faith and doubt are incompatible is incompatible with a great deal of scripture, the Old Testament is very clear that God doe not reject those who question God. In Genesis Abraham challenges God about God’s plan to destroy Sodom () and as we heard a couple of weeks ago, Jacob struggles with God all night. Moses is constantly questioning God’s response to Israel’s unfaithfulness and more than one of the prophets questions God’s wisdom. In the New Testament, in the gospels in particular, doubt and faith seem to go hand in hand (Matthew 28:17).

What is clear is that neither in the Old Testament or the New does God revile or reject those who dare to question, those who are not satisfied with simple or simplistic answers.

Two weeks ago when we looked at the story of Jesus (and Peter) walking on the water (August 13) we saw that, rather than demonstrating Peter’s faith, the story revealed Peter’s doubt, his unwillingness to believe unless he had absolute proof. We saw too that Peter’s language: “If it is you”, put him in the same category as Satan and Jesus’ opponents. According to today’s gospel, it is Peter who claims that Jesus is the Christ. Jesus calls Peter “the rock on which he will build his church” and gives to Peter the keys of the kingdom. However, within moments Jesus is accusing Peter of being Satan because, once again, Peter demonstrates that he simply does not understand the sort of Christ Jesus is to be.

Jesus calls Peter out, but he does not reject him nor does he hold him to account. Jesus accepts Peter as he is with his doubts, his questions and his need for absolute proof. If that is not an indication that doubt and questions are an acceptable part of the faith journey, I don’t know what is.

Faith and doubt are not so easily separated. Peter’s struggle to believe demonstrates that the two can be held in tension. Our questions and our struggles are often necessary to bring us to a deeper understanding of and a closer relationship with God. When we refuse to take things at face value we are led beyond the obvious and the superficial to find meaning in the things and issues that puzzle us. We are free to engage in the sort of exploration that is content with the journey itself and that understands that ultimately God will always elude us. As T.S. Eliot expresses the mystery: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Peter’s doubt does not exclude him from a relationship with Jesus, but rather demonstrates the sort of authenticity that reveals an openness and a trust that allows the relationship to grow and develop. Rather than isolate him from God, Peter’s freedom to be himself, to question and to challenge, eventually leads Peter to believe with such conviction that he will willingly give his life for what he believes.

 

 

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Keeping Jesus secret

September 12, 2015

Pentecost 16 – 2015

Mark 8:27-38

Marian Free

May God’s word, written and spoken, speak to our hearts and minds so that we might know God’s Son Jesus the Christ and in so knowing allow ourselves to deny ourselves such that Jesus is our all-in-all. Amen.

“Get behind me Satan!” Jesus strongest words of rebuke are directed towards Peter at the very point at which Peter has identified Jesus as the Christ. What is going on here? Why does Jesus react so strongly? Why is it that when Peter demonstrates both his insight and his concern that Jesus not only goes on the offensive but also identifies the spokesperson for the disciples as the devil? To grasp the answers to these questions we have to understand the strategy that lies behind Mark’s gospel and Mark’s understanding of the nature of Jesus’ ministry.

As I have said on other occasions, the gospels are not simply random collections of memories nor are they an orderly and exact account of Jesus’ life and teachings. They are in fact carefully crafted writings designed to gain the listeners’ attention and so to bring them to faith in Jesus. Like any good story, the gospels build suspense and come to a climax before finally coming to resolution and they make good use of literary techniques to achieve their end. In this the author of Mark is no different from the other gospel writers. He develops his plot in such a way that Jesus’ identity and destiny are only gradually revealed. In fact one of the characteristics of Mark’s gospel is that of secrecy. A reader could be excused for thinking that the Jesus of Mark’s gospel does not want to be recognised, that he does not want anyone to know who he is.

Secrecy is essential for the author of Mark. Central to his gospel is the cross. In his account of Jesus, Jesus is primarily depicted as the suffering Son of God. Mark knows that this is a contradiction in terms. It does not make sense that God would be vulnerable, that God would appear on earth, not as a leader but as a servant, a servant who would have to suffer and die. It is because a suffering Messiah is difficult to understand that the Jesus of Mark’s gospel reveals his true identity only gradually. Jesus fears that if he exposes his hand too soon those who follow him will form the wrong impression. If he reveals that he is the Messiah, they will cast him in a mould that fits their expectations and will be disappointed when he fails to conform.

The wisdom of Jesus’ caution becomes obvious in today’s reading, which represents a watershed moment in Mark’s gospel. Up until now, Jesus’ true nature has been recognised only by the demons whom he has exorcised. Today Jesus takes a risk and asks the disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers confidently: “You are the Christ.” Peter is of course correct, but only partly so. He understands that Jesus is the one promised by God, but he fails to understand what this means in Jesus’ case. This is evidenced when Jesus announces that he must suffer and die. Peter takes him aside and rebukes him. In Peter’s world the Messiah doesn’t die, the Messiah comes to lead and to save.

It is this misapprehension that elicits Jesus’ strong rebuke. Peter has it all wrong. Despite knowing and working with Jesus for some time, he still thinks in human terms and categories. Peter is only able to identify Jesus according to known criteria. He simply cannot cope with the idea of a Messiah who does not conform to his expectations.

Over the next two weeks we will see that the disciples generally cannot come to terms with a Messiah who is not a triumphant leader, but a suffering servant. Each time Jesus announces his death and resurrection, the disciples demonstrate by their words and actions that they really have no idea – either what this means for Jesus or for their discipleship. It is no wonder that Jesus doesn’t want them to tell anyone about him. Until they fully understand his identity and destiny there is no point their sharing their knowledge with anyone. Unless they really comprehend who and what Jesus is, the crucifixion will make no sense at all.

Jesus’ question to Peter could well be Jesus’ question to us. How well do we understand Jesus? Do we make the mistake of ignoring Jesus’ suffering, Jesus’ vulnerability and frailty? Do we too soon elevate Jesus to Son of God without fully understanding his crucifixion and death? Do we really comprehend that Jesus life and ministry are a model for our own? That is, do we really understand that serving God means serving others? Have we grasped that following Jesus requires complete surrender – putting our own needs and wants aside in order to give to him our whole selves – heart, mind and body? Would we, should the occasion require, give even our whole lives?

Do we really comprehend the identity and destiny of Jesus? Or do we like Peter and the disciples still think in human terms? Does the real nature of Jesus remain a mystery for us or have we fully grasped the contradiction of a suffering Son of God?

“Who do you think that I am?” is a question that echoes through the ages, forcing each succeeding generation to examine their hearts and ask if they really do understand. It is a question that challenges every age to embrace a Saviour who must suffer and die before he rises in glory.

When good is perceived as evil

June 6, 2015

Pentecost 2 -2015

Mark 3:20-35

Marian Free

 In the name of God whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts. Amen.

If you have never read the Gospel of Mark from beginning to end, may I suggest that you take the time to do so. Mark’s account of Jesus is quite short and I think most of us could read it in one or two sittings. This is important, because, it is only by reading the gospel from start to finish that we can gain some idea of the plot development and of the themes that run through the gospel. For example, a prominent theme is Mark’s gospel is that of “conflict”, in particular a conflict regarding who has authority – Jesus or the religious leaders? The question can be narrowed down still further to “who has God’s authority – the authority to represent God before the people?” – Jesus or those who have been given, or who have assumed the authority to interpret scripture and to guard and to pass on the traditions of the faith. When the question is narrowed down still further, we begin to see that the conflict is a contest between good and evil, between the heavenly authorities and earthly authorities, between God and Satan.

The earthly authorities (whether the Pharisees, the scribes, the Sadducees, the priests or the Herodians) try over and over again to discredit Jesus, to demonstrate that he not only disregards the law and the traditions of the elders, but that he willfully breaks the law and ignores the traditions. The “authorities” are determined to assert their own authority to represent God, and to expose Jesus as a madman, a fraud, a blasphemer or worse, an agent of Satan. Instead of which they themselves are exposed as self-serving, misrepresenting God, misinterpreting scripture, enforcing a tradition that has reached its use-by date and worse, as blasphemers. Despite the best effort of “the authorities”, in every confrontation Jesus is able to turn the tables on his accusers and to reveal them to be guilty of the very things of which they accuse him.

Jesus is accused of breaking the Sabbath, but whereas his actions (of healing) lead to wholeness and life, the action of the authorities on that same day is to plot Jesus’ death. The authorities try to entrap him with questions about divorce and about the resurrection, but Jesus knows the scriptures so well that he is able to point out that they simply do not understand. They accuse Jesus of breaking the law only to have Jesus point out their hypocrisy and their propensity to twist the law to suit themselves. All their attempts to entangle Jesus or to cause him to lose face before the people have the opposite effect. A result of the conflict – which they have instigated – is that the so-called “authorities” are revealed as loveless, legalistic hypocrites.

Nowhere is the battle between good and evil so clear as in today’s gospel. This is the last of the first series of confrontations between Jesus and the authorities. So far Jesus has been accused of blasphemy, of breaking the laws of ritual purity, of failing to observe fast days and of breaking the Sabbath. At the same time the crowds have identified Jesus as “one having authority” and the evil spirits have recognised Jesus as the Holy One of God. The end result is a conspiracy to destroy him.

In today’s gospel, the scene is set when Jesus’ family, made anxious by reports that he is “out of his mind”, come to restrain him. The idea that Jesus himself might be possessed by an evil spirit is taken up by the scribes (who apparently have come all the way from Jerusalem to Galilee to attack him). The scribes accuse Jesus of having Beelzebul (Satan) claiming that only Beelzebul would have the power that Jesus has to cast out demons.

Such a claim is so ridiculous that it is easy for Jesus to demonstrate that it is utterly baseless. No one would possibly try to defeat an opponent by destroying members of their own team. Jesus points out that is only because he has already defeated Satan that he can now so easily dispense with Satan’s minions. Having dealt with the attack on him, Jesus turns the tables on his accusers. He suggests that by identifying him with Satan, the scribes have revealed their true nature and committed the most serious sin of all – that of the sin against the Holy Spirit which is the only sin for which there is no forgiveness. In Jesus, the scribes have seen evil and not good and in so doing they have confused God with Satan. Their attack on Jesus has exposed just how completely they have come to depend on themselves and on earthly authority and how, as a consequence, they have effectively shut God out of their lives. They cannot recognise in Jesus God’s beauty, love, wisdom and compassion. Instead they see in him only evil and threat.

Worse, what is good has become to them so threatening and so disturbing, that they believe that they have to destroy it. The scribes are so intent on preserving their position and their traditions that anything that shakes the status quo is, by their definition, evil. The goodness and life that Jesus represents is to them the source of evil and death.

This then, is the unforgivable sin, to mistake what is good for evil. The scribes have become so blind to goodness that they have closed their hearts to all that is good and true. Believing themselves to be arbiters of good and evil, the scribes simply cannot see that they are in need of forgiveness. They have so effectively locked God out of their hearts and lives that they have put themselves out of reach of God’s loving compassion. It is not so much that God won’t forgive, but that they will not allow God to forgive because instead of seeing in Jesus an example of God’s goodness, they can only see the destruction of everything that they have come to hold dear.

Seeing evil in what is good is not limited to Jesus’ first century opponents. A willingness to rely on human authority and a desire to maintain the status quo has led to acts of oppression and injustice and that have seen the imprisonment and torture of good and prophetic men and women. It is fear of change and distrust of the other that has allowed humanity to turn a blind eye to the abuse of power and the destruction of innocents discrimination against those who are different and rejection of those whom we imagine would threaten our lifestyles.

My our lives be so focused on God that we are not so afraid of change or so determined to hold on to what we have known and believed to be true that we fail to see goodness when it is right in front of us. May our lives be so driven by God’s love and wisdom and compassion that we do not hear the voice of change as the voice of evil when the change is for the greater good.

Suffering is not failure

August 30, 2014

Pentecost 12 – 2014
Matthew 16:21-28
Marian Free

In the name of God who gives us strength and courage to weather the storms of this existence and to come through the other side. Amen.

It is not unusual for someone who is confronted with bad news to deny or ignore it or to change it into a challenge – something that can be defeated or overcome. For example, a typical response these days to a diagnosis of terminal illness is: “I am going to fight it.” Older people (weary with living) who are encouraged by their families to hold on: “You are not going to die, we won’t let you.” When someone has an untimely death at sea, in the mountains or in the air or at sea, it is not uncommon to hear friends and family say: “At least he (or she died) doing what they loved,” as if that somehow makes it all right. At the same time, it is possible to treat the suffering of others in the same way. After the flood and during the cyclone our then Premier assured the state: “We are Queenslanders – we will recover.”

In today’s world it seems that many people are so determined to be positive or to be survivors that they are both unwilling and unable to confront the fact that life consists of both the good and the bad and that together they make up the fullness of living. Death is not some disaster that should be evaded – either by fighting it to the bitter end or by making out that a tragic death is somehow wonderful. Neither is it, for Christians at least, something to be feared. Death will come to all of us and while we may want to embrace life we cannot, in the end, cheat death. In the context of this strong, positive culture a simple acceptance of one’s circumstances has come to be seen as a weakness. Giving up or refusing treatment and accepting the inevitable has come to be viewed as a lack of determination to survive. A failure to be upbeat in the face of loss is considered to be giving in to rather than challenging fate.

Of course, I am over-generalising, but it does seem to me that, in this country at least, there has been a movement from a culture that lives with the tension of life and death, trauma and triumph, to a culture that seems to believe that with the right attitudes anything can be achieved.

When viewed through the lens of this culture Peter’s outburst in today’s gospel makes absolute sense – he doesn’t want Jesus to die.

To re-cap the story – in last week’s gospel Jesus asked the disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” After a couple of responses: “Elijah, one of the prophets”, Jesus asked: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responds: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” His statement earns Peter not only Jesus’ commendation, but also the assurance that Peter is the rock on whom Jesus will build the church. In today’s gospel Peter the rock, is being accused of being Satan, a scandal, a stumbling block. The problem is that Peter doesn’t really understand. While he has come to the conclusion that Jesus is the Christ, he has not grasped what that really means. When Jesus explains that he must suffer and die, Peter reacts in a very human way and demonstrates that he has no idea of Jesus’ real nature and purpose.

At the time of Jesus there were a variety of expectations about the type of Saviour that God would send to redeem Israel. Some Jews thought that the redemption of Israel would be a military victory over Rome and that the Christ would lead them in battle. Others looked for a priestly figure who would reinvigorate the faith and cleanse the Temple and its officials of corruption. No one, it seems, expected the sort of Saviour that Jesus would turn out to be, a Christ who would suffer at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the scribes and be put to death. They expected a leader, not a victim.

No wonder Peter bursts out: “God forbid! This will not happen to you.” He has not grasped that Jesus will win the hearts and minds of the people, not by force, but by love and that evil will not be defeated by power, but by powerlessness. He is thinking in human terms, showing that despite his acknowledgement of Jesus as the Christ he has not fully grasped what this means.

Peter’s natural instinct is to reject the notion of a suffering Christ and to protect his friend and teacher from harm. He does not realise that his good intention would in fact defeat God’s purpose. His misunderstanding makes him no better than Satan. For like Satan, Peter is trying to turn Jesus from the path set before him, like Satan, Peter fails to understand that weakness, not power will achieve God’s purpose, like Satan Peter has not grasped that it is only by submitting to God’s will that humanity will be saved.

No wonder Jesus reacts so strongly. He must be as firm in his purpose now, as he was when he was tempted in the desert. What is more, it is essential that Peter and the disciples understand what lies ahead. It is vital that they, his followers, understand the way of salvation, not only because he, Jesus will need their support and encouragement, but more importantly because if they are to carry on after he is gone, they will have to teach others about Jesus and they too will have to walk the way of the cross. The disciples must learn not only that Jesus is the Christ, but they must learn and understand what it is to be the Christ to follow in his footsteps.

Accepting the way of Christ is no passive submission to fate, but an active decision to follow the path that God has laid down for us wherever it may lead and whatever it may cost. It is a decision to allow our lives to be governed, not by human needs and desires, but by the presence of God within us. It is grasping the contradiction that the one sent by God to save, must also suffer and die and teaching others that suffering is not always failure, but is sometimes the very thing that leads to salvation and life.

Who is Jesus?

August 24, 2014

Pentecost 11

Matthew 16:13-20 (A Reflection)

Marian Free

 

In the name of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Amen.

In January 2013, ABC Science reported that an Australian researcher had discovered a new frog near Ho Chi Minh City. Apparently Jodi Rowley who discovered Helen’s Flying Frog, at first thought it was familiar species. It was only when she saw the original specimen some time later that she realised that the former exhibited a number of differences. Molecular analysis confirmed that she had in fact identified a species that had not previously been recognised. Similar discoveries are happening all the time. If you google “new frogs” you will learn that no less than fourteen new species of dancing frogs have been found in India, another frog has been found in Madagascar and a thorny tree frog has been discovered in Vietnam.

I find it extraordinary that centuries after Linnaeus developed a system of classifying flora and fauna, that it is still possible to locate new species. It is equally fascinating that the distinction between sub-species is sometimes so subtle that a researcher has to rely on molecular analysis in order to be certain that the new creature is in fact new. Presumably any difference is significant and important in the scientific world.

Identity is an important issue. If a person claims to be a policeman or woman, we want to see some form of identification before we comply with their request. If we are about to have major (or minor surgery) we would like to know that our specialist has in fact passed their exams. When we hire a car, pick up a package from the Post Office, leave or enter a country, staff and officials need some surety that we are who we say we are.

Despite all these precautions, it is still possible to be taken in. Numerous people have been caught up in improbably investment schemes, or have lost their life savings believing that the person whom they met online is their one true love. Still others have been caught in the grip of charismatic figures who imprison them in some form of extreme religious idealism (often with catastrophic results).

It should come as no surprise then, that the matter of Jesus’ identity was a live issue both during his lifetime and when the gospels were being written. Why would anyone risk their life, or expose their credibility for a charlatan? Those who were writing the gospels wanted to write in such a way that others would be convinced to follow Jesus.

Each writer approaches the question slightly differently. Matthew, whose gospel we are reading presents Jesus primarily as the authoritative teacher (one who has more authority than the scribes and Pharisees). Jesus is also the “one who abides” – Immanuel, God with us. He is the Son of David, the Son of God. He is “I AM” and the one who will bring Gentiles to faith. It seems that no one word or expression can fully contain the writer’s experience and knowledge of Jesus. While we know who Jesus is, the early disciples were not at all sure. The writers of the Synoptic gospels show how the disciples gradually came to understanding.

That said, all gospel writers struggle with the fact that Jesus does not fit neatly into any existing category. The disciples especially find it difficult to come to grips with the fact that Jesus is to suffer and to die. This tension comes to a head in today’s gospel. At the very point at which Peter makes his declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the same Peter makes it clear that he doesn’t understand what this means. He, along with his fellow Jews had expected God to send the Christ – a figure who would set things right – either by reforming the faith, or by leading a revolt against Rome. A Christ who was dead would not be able to achieve either of those things.

Peter expresses his determination that this should not happen – that Christ should conform to expectations. Jesus’ aggressive response demonstrates just how serious Peter’s misunderstanding is: “Get behind me Satan.” Jesus cannot and will not fulfill his task in any way than that set before him. It is suffering and death and consequent resurrection that will set the world to rights – there is no other way.

Jesus has been so domesticated and his death and resurrection so sanctified, that it is difficult for us to understand how confronting it was for those first disciples. We cannot grasp what a huge leap it was for anyone, Jew or Greek, to believe in a crucified Saviour.

You and I have the benefit of the gospels and two thousands years of reflection and study on the life of Christ to inform our understanding. We have the creeds that have formalized our belief and our liturgies which celebrate it.

All these come to nothing however, if we have not answered Jesus’ question for ourselves, if we have not made the effort to come to know who he really is and what his suffering achieved.

Jesus asks: “Who do you say that I am?” What do you reply?

Triumph of good over evil

September 28, 2013

Michael and All Angels – 2013 

Revelation 12:7-12a

Marian Free

In the name of God who reveals to us far more than we can understand and yet is as familiar as a breath. Amen.

The first time I was taken to see a Shakespearean play, my father gave me a synopsis to read so that I would be sure to understand it. Shakespeare’s English and time are sufficiently different from ours that my father thought that I would be lost without some guidance. It is still the case, that for some productions at least, the programme provides an outline of the story so that the attendee does not get lost. It is a shame that some such guidance is not provided for modern readers of the book of Revelation which was written for a time vastly different from our own and in a form and language that many of us find difficult, if not impossible to understand.

From the beginning the book of Revelation was controversial. Until the fourth century many did not even include it among the books of the New Testament. Revelation is a colourful, even lurid description of what will happen at the end of time to those who oppose God and persecute those who believe in Jesus. It can be a difficult book to understand because it is full of symbolism which we no longer use or understand. In parts it reads like a collection of Old Testament quotes simply cobbled together. In other places there are descriptions of heaven and elsewhere there are fantastical stories, like the story of the woman giving birth and the red dragon which has seven heads and ten horns and a tail that can sweep the stars out of the sky.

Some of the symbolism is lost to us, but some can be interpreted. We know for example that numbers are significant in Judaism. Seven is the number of perfection, twelve represents comprehensiveness and four refers to the four corners of the earth. We know too that letters were used as numbers in both Hebrew and Greek – so for example the letters in the name David added up to 14 which is significant for Matthew’s genealogy. This information helps us to determine that 666 (the number of the beast in Revelation) is almost certainly the numerical value of the name Nero – a particularly violent Emperor, who by the time of the writing of Revelation was dead, but was also rumoured to have returned to life. Colours also have some significance for the readers of this type of literature. The four horses of the apocalypse are coloured – red (for war), green (for death), black (for famine) and white (for the crown, the conqueror).

Without a code breaker, Revelation is almost impossible to understand. Without an understanding of its background and purpose, it is easily misinterpreted. It can become to the uninitiated a book of judgment when it is intended as a book of comfort and grace.

As the introduction implies, Revelation is directed at seven churches in Asia Minor. Members of these churches were experiencing some form of persecution or social exclusion and isolation. Having become Christians they could not participate in the worship of idols nor could they be involved in the Emperor cult. This in turn would have excluded them from the social, ritual and business life of their society. If they could not worship idols, they could not belong to the trade guilds and their ability to earn a living would have been severely reduced. Added to that was the fact that after the Jewish war they had lost the protection of the synagogue and the respect that was afforded to the Jews throughout the Empire. They were vulnerable and not recognised by the state as a religion.

What these people needed then was encouragement to keep the faith and an assurance that they would be rewarded for their steadfastness – if not in the present then at least in some future life. They needed to believe too that those who opposed them would get their just desserts. The book was not written as a prediction of cataclysmic events in a distant future. It was written to address a particular situation sometime towards the end of the first century. It cannot be used to interpret our present, but rather as a tool to try to understand an aspect of the past.

Scholars approach the book differently, but one way to read the book is to see it as a drama which consists of seven scenes.[i]. Five of the scenes are bordered by descriptions of heaven and four of the scenes contain a group of seven – there are seven seals, seven trumpets, seven visions and seven bowls. Before the seventh seal and seventh trumpet there are interludes or digressions which introduce a different theme one of which includes the brief account of Michael the archangel, who with his angels, throws Satan, with his angels, out of heaven. The heavenly drama is described in only one verse. If we read on, it appears that any victory over God’s opponents has been won as much by believers on earth as it has by the heavenly hosts and that the battle in heaven is a vivid and dramatic way of describing the actual situation on earth.

Satan is not necessarily a being, but is personalized here to make a point about the battle between good and evil, chaos and order, law and lawlessness. The context tells us that Satan in this account is not the tempter of Genesis but the accuser, the devil’s advocate of the book of Job. We deduce this from verse 10, which suggests that one of the forms of persecution experienced by Christians is that their fellow citizens have been accusing them before Rome (12:10) – possibly informing the authorities of their refusal to take part in the Emperor cult. However, even at the risk of their own lives, the believers have remained firm. In this way the believers themselves have exposed how ineffectual Satan really is. Perhaps more importantly, there is no longer anything for which believers can be accused – they have remained faithful. This means that there is no longer a role for Satan (the accuser) in heaven.

Believers are thus assured that while the present may be filled with difficulty and the threat of persecution, their steadfastness in the face of opposition is essential to the triumph of heaven, the victory of good over evil. How comforting those words must have been then and how much they must mean to the Christians experiencing hostility and violence in places such as Pakistan and Nigeria today. Not only are they assured that their steadfastness will be rewarded, they are also being reminded that their very faithfulness will contribute to the triumph of good in the world.

Our experience, in 21st century Hamilton, is vastly different from those for whom the book of Revelation was written. That said, we still live in a world in which there is a great deal that is outside of our control, in which bad things happen to good people and in which no one can escape grief and suffering. For all its complexities, the Book of Revelation is a reminder that no matter how bleak our situation or our disastrous the outlook for the future, we can believe that God is on our side, that good will triumph over evil and that at the end, God will wipe every tear from our eyes (Rev 21:4).


[i] Fallon provides the following breakdown of the book.

a. Introduction                                                 1:1-3

b. Opening liturgical dialogue                     1:4-8

c. Prophetic commission                              1:9-11

Heaven

Scene 1 Letters to the 7 churches             2:1-3:22

Heaven                                                   4:1-5:14

Scene 2 Six seals are broken                       6:1-7:9

Heaven                                                   7:9-8:6

Scene 3 The sounding of six  trumpets            8:7-11:14

Heaven                                                11:15-12:12

Scene 4 Forces for good and for evil      12:13-14:20

Heaven                                                 15:1-8

Scene 5 The seven bowls                            16:1-18:24

Heaven                                                19:1-10

Scene 6 The final struggle, victory          19:11-20:15

and judgement

Scene 7 The Church of God on earth     21:1-22:5

a. Guarantee of prophecy              22:6-7

b. Concluding liturgical dialogue    22:8-17

c. Conclusion                                                22:18-21


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