November 6: Revelation 15:1-4

Revelation 15-16

Chapters 15-16 comprise the vision-cycle of seven “bowls” (fia/lai), the third of the three major seven-vision cycles in the book of Revelation. All three variously depict the great Judgment that is to come upon the earth at the end time. The first cycle of seven seals (chap. 6) primarily describe the period of distress (qli/yi$) which precedes the return of Jesus and the great Judgment; however the last two seals, in my view, refer more properly to the time of Judgment (6:12-17; 8:1-2). The second cycle of seven trumpets (chaps. 8-9), by contrast, provide a vivid description of the Judgment on earth. This final cycle of seven bowls presents the earthly Judgment again, in even more dramatic terms. We can see the parallel (and interlocking) structure of these cycles:

Seal-Cycle
Trumpet-Cycle
Bowl-Cycle
  • Vision of the Lamb (chap. 5)
  • The period of distress (Seals 1-5, 6:1-11)
  • The People of God (144,000, 7:1-8ff)
  • The Judgment (Seals 6-7, 6:12-17; 8:1-2)
  • Vision of the Lamb (7:9-17; 8:1)
  • The period of distress (chap. 7; 8:3)
  • The People of God
    (144,000, chap. 7 + 11)
  • The Judgment (Trumpets, 8:3-10:7; 11:15)
  • Vision [of the Lamb] (11:15ff + 14:1ff)
  • The period of distress (chaps. 12-13)
  • The People of God (144,000, 14:1-5ff)
  • The Judgment (Bowls, 14:6-16:20 + chaps. 17-18ff)

The Bowl-cycle is connected with a separate visionary theme and set of symbols—the fall of the great city Babylon, and the harvest (wine-press) imagery for the Judgment. Indeed, the latter vision-set brackets the Bowl-cycle, forming a comprehensive depiction of the Great Judgment:

Revelation 15:1-4

“And I saw another sign in the heaven, great and wondrous: seven Messengers holding the last seven (thing)s to strike—(last in) that the (angry) impulse of God is completed in them.” (v. 1)

The language here matches that of 12:1, speaking of a “great sign” (shmei=on me/ga) visible in the heavens. There it referred to a vision of the People of God (the Woman), in the context of a great conflict (with the Dragon). Here in 15:1ff, by contrast, the conflict for the People of God (believers, children of the Woman [12:17]) is over—they have been delivered, with the coming of the Son of Man (Jesus, 14:14ff), and now the great Judgment for the people on earth will begin (14:17ff).

This Judgment, to be unleashed by the heavenly Messengers (cf. the previous note), is described as a set of seven plhgai/. The noun plhgh/ fundamentally means something (a blow, etc) that is struck. It can refer specifically to disease or natural disaster—i.e. something that strikes humankind—and, according to the ancient religious mindset, it is God who strikes the blow. Here, of course, it is no ordinary disease or disaster—rather it represents God’s great (and final) punishment upon the wickedness of humankind. Almost certainly, the historical tradition of the “Plagues” of Egypt (Exod 7-12) is in view.

For those who would (attempt to) read the visions of Revelation in a strict chronological sense, the punishments of the Bowl-visions are events which occur, in sequence, after those of the Trumpet-visions have taken place. While this is true in terms of the literary and narrative sequence of the visions, I believe it is a gross mistake to read them as a concrete sequence of specific, actual events. The cyclical nature of the visions (cf. above), and the way the symbolism is developed, would seem to make this absolutely clear. Moreover, the language here in verse 1 indicates the significance of the adjective “last” (e&sxato$) in context: it refers to the completion (vb tele/w) of God’s desire to punish wickedness—that is to say, His desire (qumo/$, “impulse”, 14:8, 10, 19) is finally realized and fulfilled through the Judgment.

“And I saw (something) as a (crystal) clear sea having been mixed with fire, and the (one)s (hav)ing been victorious (from) out of the wild animal—and out of its image and out of the number of its name—having (now) stood upon the (crystal) clear sea, holding harps of God.” (v. 2)

This “crystal-clear” (u(a/lino$) sea refers back to the heavenly throne-vision in chapter 4 (v. 6), and generally derives from Old Testament and Jewish tradition, especially the vision of Ezekiel (1:22, 26; cf. 1 Enoch 4:2; 2 Enoch 4:2; Koester, p. 631), and the ancient cosmological idea of God (El-YHWH) enthroned (or standing) over the primeval waters (Gen 1:6-7; Ps 104:2-3; 148:4, etc); cf. also the clear blue pavement in the theophany of Exod 24:10. The image played a significant role in Jewish mystical tradition, the visionary-ascent (Merkabah/Hekhalot) traditions, which included the idea that the one who ‘ascends’ might mistakenly think that he was in danger of being overcome by a flood of water—when, in fact, it is not physical water at all, but a manifestation of the heavenly splendor of God’s throne (b. „agigah 14b, Tosefta; Greater Hekhalot chap. 19).

The earthly “Sea” (qa/lassa), like the primeval waters, is dark, turbulent, and menacing, serving as a traditional symbol of chaos, death, and evil. This is certainly the idea in the chap. 13 visions, whereby the fabulous “wild animal” (qhri/on) comes up out of the Sea, in the presence (and under the influence of) the Dragon, who stands on the shore of the Sea (12:18). Here, by contrast, the “Sea” is clear, and believers are able to stand upon it without danger of being harmed. The preposition e)pi/ (“upon”) could mean upon the edge or shore of the sea, in which case there is a parallel with 12:18; however, I think it very possible that they stand on the surface of the sea, possibly alluding to the Exodus tradition of the People of God passing through (or over) the sea as if on dry land (Exod 14:22; 15:19).

Overall, this scene parallels that of 14:1-6, describing the People of God in terms of believers who resisted the influence of the evil Sea-creature during the period of distress (chap. 13). Here, too, believers hold heavenly harps and sing, after having been delivered from suffering, persecution, and the coming Judgment. Again the verb nika/w (“be victorious [over]”) is used, as a characteristic of the faithful believer (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; 12:11)—i.e. victorious over the Sea-creature and its evil worldly power. The preposition e)k (“out of”) should probably be taken literally here, according to the imagery—i.e. believers are able to resist and escape from “out of” the clutches of the “wild animal”.

“And they sing the song of Moshe the slave [i.e. servant] of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying:
‘Great and wondrous (are) your works, Lord God the All-mighty!
Just and true (are) your ways, King of the Nations!
Who will not fear (you), Lord, and give honor to your Name?
(in) that [i.e. because] you are holy,
(so) that all the nations will come and kiss toward [i.e. worship] (you) in your sight,
(in) that your just (action)s are made to shine forth!'” (vv. 3-4)

We should not think of two different songs being sung; rather, two different motifs and strands of tradition are brought together to symbolize the “song” that believers sing. It is fundamentally a song of salvation, praising God for His deliverance of His people. The “song of Moses” refers to the ancient poem of Exodus 15:1-18, set after the Israelites’ escape from the Egyptians (the wicked worldly power of the time), passing through the Sea to safety (including the destruction of the Egyptian forces). Similarly, believers escape from the power of the Sea-creature, effectively passing through that “Sea” (note esp. the wording in Exod 15:13). The “song of the Lamb” praises God for the deliverance He brings through the person and work of Jesus (his death and resurrection), and reflects the close connection between the redeemed, faithful believers and the Lamb in Rev 7:9-17 and 14:1-5.

The actual song here in vv. 3-4 draws upon the traditional language of Old Testament poetry, both in the Psalms (22:28; 35:10; 47:8; 72:1; 86:10; 89:8; 98:2; 111:2-4; 139:14, etc; Koester, pp. 632-3), and elsewhere in Scripture, including the great ancient songs attributed to Moses (Exod 15:1-18; Deut 32:1-43). It may be viewed as a hymn with two parallel strophes, each with a similar outline:

    • Statement of the greatness/holiness of God (lines 1, 4)
      • His authority over the nations and their submission (lines 2, 5)
    • The Person (“Name”) and works of God are reason to give Him honor (lines 3, 6)

The title “King of the Nations”, in particular, emphasizes the impending defeat of the Sea-creature, the fall of the Great City (Babylon), and the final Judgment of the nations. God is depicted in his traditional role (frequent in the Psalms) as Judge, whose judgments are just (di/kaio$) and true (a)lhqino/$). The idea that the nations will come to God and worship Him is part of traditional Jewish eschatological and Messianic thought, going back to key oracles in the Prophets (esp. deutero-Isaiah, chaps. 40-66)—at the end time, the nations will be subdued and will come to Jerusalem to give homage to God and His people. For more on this subject, and a summary of references, see the article on “Jews and Gentiles and the People of God”.

The Sea here is said to be crystal-clear and yet also “mixed with fire“. This symbolizes the two aspects of the end-time Judgment:

    • The purity of believers and their deliverance—being gathered together at the coming of the Son of Man (return of Jesus), described in the grain harvest vision of 14:14-16 (cf. Mark 13:26-27 par; 1 Thess 4:14-17, etc).
    • The wickedness of the world (non-believers) and their punishment—traditionally depicted, as here in Revelation, through the image of fire.

The fiery Judgment is presented in the Bowl-vision cycle, beginning with the heavenly scene in vv. 5-8, which I will examine in the next daily note.

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November 4: Revelation 14:14-20

Revelation 14:14-20

In the third vision of chapter 14, we finally have a depiction of the end-time coming of the “Son of Man” —that is, the return of the exalted Jesus to earth. It had been foreshadowed at several points, including a more direct reference at the beginning of the book (1:7, cf. the note there), but is now described in a vision for the first time. The coming of the Son of Man ushers in the great Judgment, the event being presented here using harvest imagery (introduced in verse 4, cf. the prior note). The harvest marks the end of the growing season, and so serves as a suitable eschatological motif—i.e., for the end of the current Age. The basic act of harvesting—the cutting—is itself an ambiguous symbol. On the one hand, it provides life-giving and sustaining food for the community, and is thus a positive symbol of life. On the other hand, it can be seen as an act of violence, the menacing image of swinging a sharp and dangerous tool, cutting off the life of what has been growing out of the earth.

Both aspects are combined in the use of the harvest as an image of the end-time Judgment, already well-established in early Christian tradition by the time the book of Revelation was written, largely by way of the sayings/parables of Jesus, as well as earlier in the Old Testament Prophets (Joel 3:13ff [cf. below]; Jer 50:16; 51:33; Matt 3:12 par; Mark 4:29; Matt 13:30, 39; cf. also Luke 10:2 par; Jn 4:35, where the eschatological aspect of Jesus’ statements are often overlooked). Here, in Rev 14:14-20, two kinds of harvest are depicted: the grain harvest (vv. 14-16), and the grape harvest (vv. 17-20). They symbolize two aspects of the time of the Judgment, respectively—the salvation of believers and the punishment of the wicked.

Verses 14-16: The Grain Harvest

“And I saw, and see!—a white cloud, and upon the cloud was sitting ‘(one) like a son of man’, holding upon his head a gold wreath and upon his hand a sharp plucking-tool [i.e. sickle]. And another Messenger came out of the shrine, crying out in a great voice to the (one) sitting upon the cloud: ‘You must send (out) your plucking-tool and reap (the summer crop), (in) that [i.e. because] the hour to reap (has) come, (in) that the summer crop of the earth is dried out (for) reaping!’ And the (one) sitting upon the cloud cast his plucking-tool upon the earth, and the (summer crop of the) earth was reaped.”

I have utilizing both “summer crop” and “reap(ing)” in English to convey the fundamental meaning of the verb qeri/zw and related noun qerismo/$. (i.e. the heat of late-summer as the time for reaping). The figure sitting on the cloud, and depicted as the harvester (in that he holds a sickle, dre/panon, plucking/cutting-tool), is identified by way of an allusion (in Greek) to the expression in Daniel 7:13: “one like a son of man” (o%moio$ ui(o\$ a)nqrw/pou). The Daniel reference is the basis for the expression “Son of Man” as the name for an eschatological (and Messianic) figure—a heavenly redeemer figure-type who will appear at the end-time to deliver God’s people and bring about the Judgment. Jesus uses the same expression as a self-reference in many sayings, and, in his eschatological “Son of Man” sayings, identifies himself with the heavenly-deliverer who is to appear at the time of Judgment. For more on this, see Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, the supplementary note on Dan 7:13-14, the earlier article in this series on the eschatological sayings, as well as the series of notes on the Son of Man sayings of Jesus as a whole. The clearest allusion to Daniel 7 is found in two key Synoptic sayings: Mark 13:26-27 par (part of the Eschatological Discourse) and Mark 14:62 par (the Sanhedrin ‘trial’ scene); it is echoed again in Acts 7:55-56, and is part of the imagery surrounding Jesus’ expected return (Acts 1:9-11; 1 Thess 4:17; Rev 1:7).

Verse 15 brings certain eschatological details into view; we may note these as follows:

    • The association of heavenly Messengers (Angels, a&ggeloi) with the Son of Man figure. In many of the eschatological sayings of the Jesus, the “Son of Man” is said to appear from heaven together with these Messengers—Mark 8:38 par; 13:26-27 par; Matt 13:39-41ff; 25:31; Luke 12:8-9; cf. also John 1:51.
    • The image of the Temple sanctuary (nao/$). In the book of Revelation, the Temple is primarily a heavenly symbol, representing the dwelling place of God, but also as a gathering place for the People of God (in their heavenly aspect)—cf. 3:12; 7:15; 11:19; 16:1, 17. Only in 11:1-2 is the Temple (and its sanctuary) used in reference to the People of God in their earthly aspect (i.e. believers on earth). Here the Messenger comes out of the sanctuary, i.e. from God’s presence, to address the Son of Man.
    • The harvest imagery is specifically associated with the Judgment, by way of an apparent allusion to Joel 3:13 (cf. below).

Some may find it strange that a Messenger (Angel) here commands the exalted Jesus (Son of Man) to act (imperative “You must…”). However, this simply reflects the fundamental (and sometimes forgotten) meaning of an a&ggelo$ as a messenger—that is, one who conveys a message from God the Father. Here this describes God the Father informing Jesus (the Son) that the time has come to act. It may also reflect the situation in the difficult Synoptic saying of Mark 13:32 par, where Jesus indicates that only the Father (and not the Son) knows just when the moment of the end will occur (cf. also Acts 1:7; 17:31 for this as a time specifically set by God).

The grain harvest, depicted in vv. 15-16, as a symbol has two main points of signification: (1) that the end-time Judgment is begun by Jesus (the Son of Man) at his return, and (2) that it refers primarily to the salvation/deliverance of believers. Generally such harvest-imagery in the New Testament refers to the gathering of believers, and is thus a positive image (of salvation)—cf. Matt 9:37-38; Mark 4:29; Luke 10:2; John 4:35-38. Only in the process of threshing—separating grain from chaff (i.e. the righteous from the wicked)—does the negative aspect (of condemnation/punishment) enter in (Matt 3:12 par; 13:40-42). Here the punishment side of the Judgment is reserved for the scene of the grape harvest (vv. 17-20), drawing heavenly upon Old Testament and Jewish tradition, especially the oracle in Joel 3:9-16. This will be discussed in the next daily note.

It is worth noting that it is Jesus (the Son of Man) himself who performs the grain harvest, but the grape harvest is left to a heavenly Messenger (Angel). This probably reflects the close connection between the personal return of Jesus and the gathering of the elect (believers) specifically. This is certainly the point of emphasis both in the original Gospel tradition of Mark 13:26-27 par (even though Angels oversee the gathering), as well as Paul’s exposition in 1 Thess 4:15-17 (cf. also 1:10; 2 Thess 2:1, etc). The separation of the righteous from the wicked, thereby consigning the latter for judgment/punishment, is seen as the activity of the Angels in Matt 13:39-49. Here, too, in the book of Revelation, it is the heavenly Messengers who unleash the Judgment upon the earth in the Trumpet- and Bowl-visions.

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November 2: Revelation 14:1-5

Revelation 14

While some have been inclined to interpret the visions of the book of Revelation from a continuous chronological standpoint, the structure and symbolism of the visions, I believe, offers overwhelming evidence that the framework is instead cyclical. That is to say, the same end-time themes and events are repeated, presented from different points of view, emphasizing specific aspects and details, as the visionary narrative builds to a climax. This will be discussed further when we come to the Bowl-cycle of visions in 15:5ff; however, it is important to stress the point now as we look at the visions of chapter 14, for, in many ways, they are a key to the entire structure of the book.

There are three visions in chapter 14:

    • The Lamb and the 144,000 on Mount Zion (vv. 1-5)
    • The Three Angels announcing the Judgment (vv. 6-13)
    • A vision of Jesus’ return and the onset of the Judgment (vv. 14-20)

These correspond roughly with the three main components of early Christian eschatology:

    • A period of distress (qli/yi$) on earth which includes severe suffering/persecution of believers
    • The coming (parousia) of the exalted Jesus (the “Son of Man”) to earth, together with heavenly Messengers (Angels)
    • The end-time Judgment: deliverance for believers, punishment for the wicked

Revelation 14:1-5

The vision in verses 1-5 both builds upon the prior visions of chapters 12-13 as well as repeating important themes and symbolic matrices from the earlier visions (in chapters 5 and 7) which precede the Seal- and Trumpet-cycles. The main imagery from those visions is centered on the exalted Jesus symbolized as a heavenly Lamb (a)rni/on). In each instance, the Lamb is surrounded by the People of God—in both their heavenly (chap. 5) and earthly (chap. 7) aspects. On the symbolism of the lamb, cf. the earlier notes on 5:1-14. Here in chapter 14, the imagery more closely reflects that of chap. 7 (cf. the note on 7:9ff).

Verse 1

“And (then) I saw, and see!—the Lamb having stood upon mount ‚iyyôn, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousands, holding his name, and the name of his Father, (it) having been written upon the (space) between their eyes.”

‚iyyôn (Gk Siw/n, English Zion, a transliteration of Heb /oYx!), is a traditional Israelite/Jewish name for Jerusalem. It likely meant something like (“fortress, fortified place”) originally, and refers specifically to the ancient Canaanite hilltop site taken over by David as the location of the Israelite Temple-Palace complex (and the oldest part of the later city). Near Eastern cities of the Bronze/Iron-ages, unlike most Greco-Roman (and modern) cities, covered a much smaller area, largely limited to the palace(s) of the ruling family and associated temple-complex(es). They were walled and highly fortified, on hilltop locations, often built-up as such through successive levels of occupation. The majority of population, as farmers and herders, lived outside of this fortress-city, but would take refuge behind its walls in times of invasion or natural disaster. Thus “Zion” came to be used as a symbol of refuge and salvation in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition; this imagery was enhanced due to the manifest presence of God (YHWH) in the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple (on the Zion-site). The term (Siw/n) is rare in the New Testament, occurring just seven times (almost always in Scripture quotations), and only here in the book of Revelation. In Hebrews 12:22 it is used as a reference for the heavenly dwelling of believers, those saved and redeemed through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus; that is the same basic meaning here in Rev 14:1. The mountain location may also be intended to symbolize a point where heaven and earth meet—i.e., the people of God (believers) in both their heavenly and earthly aspects.

The motif of the 144,000 believers was introduced in the chapter 7 vision (vv. 4ff), comprising 12,000 from each of the twelve Israelite tribes. Interpretation of this symbolism as proven a bit difficult. Certainly the specific number is symbolic (12 x 12 x 10,000), and ought not to be taken in a concrete sense any more than should the image of the hybrid “creatures” that come up out of the “Sea” and “Earth”. However, there is perhaps more reason to take seriously the ethnic (i.e. Israelite) aspect of the image in 7:4ff, and, indeed, many commentators would interpret it as specifically representing Israelite/Jewish believers, perhaps along the line of Paul’s idea, expressed in Rom 11, of a widespread Jewish conversion at the end-time. In my view, this is correct, but only partly so. As I discuss in the previous notes (on 7:1-8 and 9-17), there are actually two groups in vv. 4-17 which make up the sum total of believers (the people of God): (1) the restoration of Israel (i.e. Jewish believers, vv. 4-8), and (2) those from all the other nations (vv. 9ff). While the 144,000, in that vision, more properly refers to Israelite/Jewish believers, here, in my view, it serves as a shorthand for all believers—i.e. the entire people of God.

The scene depicted in verse 1 clearly echoes the imagery of the two visions in chapter 13, at two main points:

    • Jesus as the Lamb, in opposition to appearance of the evil Earth-creature as a Lamb (13:11); more importantly, the Sea-creature was apparently slain and restored to life (13:3, 12), a wicked parody of the Lamb (5:6).
    • Just as those belonging to the Sea-creature have its name/number ‘written’ on their forehead (between the eyes), so those belonging to the Lamb have his name between their eyes (cf. also 7:3).
Verse 2

“And I heard a voice out of heaven, as a voice of many waters and as a voice of great thunder, and the voice that I heard (was) as harpers harp-playing on their harps.”

The description of this heavenly voice echoes that of 1:15, the introductory vision of the exalted Jesus (cf. the earlier note), which, in turn draws upon traditional Old Testament theophanic imagery. Here it is also described as the sound of music, specifically of heavenly musicians playing the harp (Gk kiqa/ra). The kiqa/ra is harp made up typically of seven strings (and almost certainly seven is intended here); for classic references to its use and symbolism, cf. Koester, pp. 378, 608-9, 618). Here its use reflects the heavenly worship of the Lamb in chapter 5 (v. 8).

(image courtesy of luthieros.com)

Verse 3

“And they sang (together) [as] a new song, in the sight of the ruling-seat [i.e. throne] and in the sight of the four living (being)s and the elders, and no one was able to learn the song if not [i.e. except for] th(ose) hundred and forty-four thousands, the (one)s having been (purchased as) at market [h)gorasme/noi] from (out of) the earth.”

This is essentially a repetition of the heavenly worship scene in 5:6-14, with the “new song” being that described in vv. 9-10ff. It is new (kaino/$) in the sense that it belongs to the New Age that was inaugurated with the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus (the Lamb). Since it relates to a true understanding of the person and work of Jesus, only Christian believers (represented by the 144,000) are “able to learn” this song—here the verb manqa/nw (“learn”) probably signifies both the ability to sing the song and to understand its meaning. On the traditional idiom of the “new song”, cf. Psalm 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1; Isa 42:10.

The verb a)gora/zw literally refers to going to the market-place (a)gora/) or public square (to make a purchase). It can be used in the specific context of purchasing someone’s freedom (out of slavery/bondage); that is generally how Paul uses it (in 1 Cor 6:20; 7:23, 30), referring to believers being purchased out of bondage (to sin) through Christ’s sacrificial death, and so also here in the book of Revelation (cf. Rev 5:9). Here the “earth” (gh=) has the basic meaning of the inhabited world (i.e. all of humankind), but also in terms of the world dominated by the forces of evil and wickedness (i.e. the Dragon and Sea/Earth-creatures). There is likely a play on the idea of those belonging to the Sea-creature needing the mark of its name in order to purchase (13:16-18), with those belonging to the Lamb bearing the mark of his name because they were purchased by him.

Verse 4a

“These are the (one)s that were not stained with women, for they are virgins—these (are) the (one)s following the Lamb wherever he would lead (himself) under.”

The 144,000 (i.e. believers) are now described using sexual imagery, introducing a strain of symbolism that will grow and climax in subsequent visions. The reference here is actually quite complex, drawing upon a number of traditional images. The most difficult point of interpretation is the phrase meta\ gunaikw=n ou)k e)molu/nqhsan (“they were not stained with women”). There are two ways this may be understood, depending on how the phrase is emphasized:

    • “they were not stained with women” —this reflects a male-centered orientation, defining sin/immorality in terms of sexual relations with women. That there was such an ascetic tendency in early Christianity cannot be doubted (of many passages, see esp. 1 Cor 7:1ff). A strict version of this interpretation would then view the 144,000 specifically as males (with parqe/noi as male virgins); more figuratively, one would say that the male-imagery may be applied to the purity and faithfulness of believers as a whole.
    • “they were not stained with women” —the emphasis here is that their relation with women was not stained through (improper) sexual contact; this would allow parqe/noi (“virgins”) to be used in its more common sense of chaste young women. Then, the second these (ou!toi) could refer to both aspects of the sexual/gender-symbolism—males not stained (i.e. pure) and (female) virgins.

I tend toward the second option; either way, the sexual imagery is largely figurative—symbolizing purity and faithfulness (to God and Christ). The Greek word pornei/a (literally, prostitution, but generally referring to improper sexual activity) in the New Testament often refers figuratively to a lack of faith and false religious belief and practice, etc, following a long line of Israelite/Jewish tradition going back to the Old Testament. And, given the context of the prior visions in chapter 13, the idea of sexual immorality here should be understood in terms of the wicked/false worship of the Sea-Creature (and Dragon). The second vision in 14:6-13 (discussed in the next note) will make this quite clear.

Several strands are built into the image of believers following the Lamb:

    • The basic idea of Christian discipleship as following Jesus (cf. the expression “Lamb of God” in this context in John 1:29ff)
    • Shepherd/pastoral imagery used to this effect—though normally the symbols are reversed: the sheep follow the herdsman (John 10:1-18, etc)
    • The Old Testament motif of faithfulness, whereby God’s people (Israel) follow Him into the wilderness; this can be combined with bridal/sexual imagery as well (Hos 2:14-15; Jer 2:2-3)
    • Traditional bridal motifs in ancient love poetry, etc., which depict the young maidens (including the betrothed) following after the bridegroom (Song of Song 1:3-4, 7-8; 2:4, 10ff; 3:1ff, etc). These maidens are referred to as “daughters of Jerusalem (i.e. Zion)”, which came to be a traditional expression for the people of God (the faithful ones).

I have translated the verb u(pa/gw above literally as “lead under”, often used in the basic reflexive sense of “lead oneself under”, i.e. make oneself hidden, or, more generally, go away. I preserve the etymological meaning here for two purposes: (1) the prefix u(po/ (“under”) is often used in verbal compounds denoting obedience, endurance, etc, and (2) it captures the sense of the Lamb going away, i.e. so that he cannot be so easily seen, which requires faithfulness and devotion in order for his followers to search after him (esp. in times of great distress).

Verses 4b-5

“These are the (one)s purchased (as) at market from (out of all) men, the beginning of (fruit) from (the harvest) for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth was not found (anything) false, (for) they are without blame.”

Two different traditional images are introduced here, both drawing upon Israelite harvest traditions:

    • The beginning of the harvest (both grain and vine), represented in Greek by the noun a)parxh/, which, according to Israelite tradition (and specified in the the Torah regulations), was dedicated to God, belonging to Him. Believers are occasionally referred to by this term elsewhere in the New Testament (Rom 8:23; 2 Thess 2:13; James 1:18). Here there are two aspects to be emphasized:
      (1) believers are the first-fruits in the sense that they belong to God and are dedicated to Him, and
      (2) in the vision that follows in vv. 14-20, which uses similar harvest imagery, the deliverance/rescue of believers at the time of the Judgment is given priority over the punishment of the wicked, occurring first in sequence.
    • Referring to believers as “without blame” (a&mwmo$) reflects the idea of the lamb that is without blemish, esp. the lamb slain for Passover (originally a harvest festival), cf. Exod 12:5 etc. Here “blame” is meant in the specific context of chapter 13, but it certainly extends to include the wider sense of purity and faithfulness among believers (especially during the end-time period of distress), which, in turn, reflects the holiness/purity of the Lamb (Jesus).

The lack of anything “false” in the mouth of believers is probably meant as a contrast to the deceptive/false speaking of the Sea- and Earth-creatures, by which non-believers on earth are led astray (13:5ff, 11-14ff). The idea of being “without blame” or “without blemish” also ties back to the earlier sexual imagery and bridal motifs—i.e., the bride as a chaste, virginal young woman who is presented to the groom at the time of the wedding. This entails remaining pure during the period of betrothal (engagement). Such bridal imagery is applied to (faithful) believers at a number of points in the New Testament (Matt 25:1ff; Jn 3:29; 2 Cor 11:2, etc); it will take on even greater prominence later in the book of Revelation. Interestingly, it is not entirely unusual to combine bridal and harvest motifs, as we see this done throughout the Song of Songs and elsewhere in the Old Testament. A particularly noteworthy passage is Jeremiah 2:2-3, which resembles Rev 14:4-5 in a number of respects.

September 29: Revelation 7:1-8

Revelation 7:1-8

The relationship of chapter 7 to the seal-visions in chapter 6 is problematic for readers who might be inclined to view these chapters as representing a strict chronological sequence of events. There is, however, a definite kind of (visionary) logic at work, as we shall see. More significant as a connecting point between the two chapters is the closing question in 6:17: “who is able to stand” in the face of God’s approaching Judgment? Chapter 7 gives the answer to this.

First, it is important to keep in mind the structure of the vision-cycle:

    • Group of 4 visions (seals 1-4)—horses and horsemen
    • Group of 2 visions (seals 5-6)
      {interlude}
    • The concluding vision (seal 7), which opens up into the next vision-cycle

The fifth and sixth visions involved, respectively: (i) the persecution of believers, and (ii) disruption of the natural order marking the beginning of the great Judgment by God. Chapter 7 combines both of these themes.

Rev 7:1-3

The theme and setting of the sixth seal-vision continues in verse 1:

“With [i.e. after] this, I saw four Messengers having taken (their) stand upon the four corners of the earth, holding firm(ly to) the four winds of the earth, (so) that the wind should not blow upon the earth, nor upon the sea, nor upon all tree(s).”

The sixth seal had a cosmic orientation, involving the universe (heaven and earth) as understood by ancient cosmology. Now the visionary setting has shifted to the surface of the earth. In ancient (Near Eastern) cosmology, while the universe was more or less spherical (or a hemisphere), the earth itself was essentially flat, typically envisioned as a disc or cylinder. There is no reason to think that this traditional image is not being followed here (the picture used at the top of the header above is quite inaccurate in this regard). The idea of four “corners” does not require a square shape; the number four is again traditional. Winds could be seen as coming from the ends of the earth, also identified as four (Mark 13:27; cf. Psalm 135:7; Jer 10:13; 25:32, etc). God’s power and control extends to the “ends of the earth” (Job 28:24; Psalm 46:9; 59:13; 72:8; Prov 30:4; Isa 40:28, etc), and His destructive Judgment both comes from the ends of the earth and goes out to them as well (Deut 28:49; 1 Sam 2:10; Isa 5:26; 13:5; 41:5; Jer 25:31f; 50:41). Similarly, God’s salvation extends to the ends of the earth, a motif found often in the book of Isaiah, which came to be part of the Messianic imagery (Psalm 2:8; 46:9; 65:5; 98:3; Isa 41:9; 43:6; 45:22; 48:20; 49:6; 52:10; 62:11; Jer 31:8; Mic 5:4; Zech 9:10; and cf. Acts 1:8; 13:47; Rom 10:18).

“And I saw another Messenger stepping up from the rising up of the sun [i.e. the east], holding (the) seal of the living God, and he cried (out) with a great voice to the four Messengers to whom (it) was given to them to take away the right (order) of the earth and the sea, saying: ‘Do not take away the right (order) of the earth, nor of the sea, nor of the trees, until we would seal the slaves of our God upon the (space) between their eyes [i.e. their forehead]!'” (vv. 2-3)

This makes clear that the (four) winds coming from the ends of the earth have a destructive power, and their unleashing by the Messengers (natural celestial forces were typically seen as being controlled by heavenly beings or Angels) is to be part of, and/or symbolic of, the great end-time Judgment upon the world. The adjective a&diko$ fundamentally means “without (a)) justice (di/kh)”, and the verb a)dike/w “be/act without justice”, sometimes in the sense of “take away [i.e. remove] justice”. However, here such a translation would be quite misleading; di/kh must be understood in the broader sense of “right (order)”. Thus the verb a)dike/w would be rendered “take away the right (order of things)”. In English, this is often translated more simply as “injure, harm”, but, in light of the theme of the disruption of the natural order in 6:12-17, it is perhaps best to retain this wider aspect.

The verb sfragi/zw is related to the seven-fold seal (sfragi/$) upon the scroll in chapters 4-6. As previously noted, it refers to the act of stamping an engraved image (from a signet ring, etc) upon a seal of clay or wax (or lead). This stamp marks the ownership (of the document, etc) by the one who has the signet (ring). Here it is stated that the winds will not be released (to disrupt/destroy the surface of the earth) until the “slaves of God” are stamped with the “stamp/seal of the living God” (v. 2). It is possible that this alludes to the marking/branding of slaves, such as occurred in Roman society (and many other cultures); if so, then it is a mixing of images with the sealing (through wax/clay/lead) of a document or object. The primary motif is doubtless the same, however—that the “slaves”, like the scroll, belong to God, who is their owner/master. In Romans 4:11, Paul refers to circumcision—the essential sign (shmei=on) of God’s binding agreement (covenant) with Israel—as a seal (sfragi/$) of God’s righteousness. As applied in an early Christian context, this seal marks believers as the people of God. Much the same is stated in 2 Tim 2:19:

“Yet (truly), the firm (foundat)ion set down by God has stood, holding this seal [sfragi/$]: ‘The Lord knew the (one)s being [i.e. who are] His (own)’…”

The theme of sealing will be used further in the book of Revelation, including a contrast between those sealed by God (true believers) and those stamped by the mark of the “Beast”. In this regard, it is quite likely that the stamp/seal here also is meant to indicate God’s protection. This seems to be the point for the way this detail is included in verses 1-3—the seal gives God’s “slaves” protection from the natural disasters (and other suffering) to come in the time of Judgment. The precise significance of this will be discussed and clarified in the upcoming notes.

Who are these “slaves”? The word dou=lo$ means “slave” or “(bond)servant”, but, to avoid confusion with certain historical occurrences and modern conceptions of slavery, it is often translated as “servant”. The word was regularly used, by early Christians, as a self-designation for believers—i.e. those belonging to God (and Christ), and bound to serve him (Acts 4:29, etc, and see earlier in Rev 1:1; 2:20). It could also refer specifically to one chosen by God for special service (as apostle, minister, etc). Paul uses it frequently to refer to himself (and his fellow ministers)—Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1; Col 4:12; cf. also James 1:1; 2 Pet 1:1, etc. Here in the book of Revelation, the point of reference is expounded in the verses which follow.

Rev 7:4-8

“And I heard the number of the (one)s having been sealed: one hundred and forty-four thousand, (one)s having been sealed out of all the offshoots of the sons of Yisrael—…” (v. 4)

A more precise syntax would have been “…out of the all the offshoots of Yisrael”, i.e. the tribes of Israel; we might paraphrase the actual wording here as “…out of all the tribes which make up the sons of Israel”. This brings up a somewhat difficult question of interpretation—do the ‘tribes of Israel’ here refer (1) to ethnically Israelite believers, or (2) to believers in Christ generally? The question is complicated by the relationship between vv. 4-8 and the description which follows in vv. 9-17. The answer may also depend, to some extent at least, on the orientation of the author and his audience. Was he writing (primarily) to Gentile believers, Jewish believers, or a mixed audience? On one level, it would seem that vv. 4-8 definitely refer to Israelite believers, in an ethnic sense. This would be confirmed by: (a) the combined use of “tribes (of Israel)” and “sons of Israel”, and (b) the ‘census’ in vv. 5-8, listing out the specific tribes. At the same time, the relationship between believers (Jews and Gentiles both) and the ethno-religious identity of Israel as the people of God, was extremely complex in early Christianity, and could be expressed in a number of ways. Even limiting ourselves to Paul’s letters—the most complete evidence we have from the first century—there is a wide range of images and concepts. We must be cautious in how we approach this religious dynamic in the New Testament. I would suggest three avenues for interpretation which, I believe, are supported by the 1st-century evidence:

    • Historical—Nearly all of the earliest believers were Jewish (and, presumably, Israelites); from this standpoint, Christianity was seen as a natural extension (and fulfillment) of God’s covenant with Israel—i.e. Israelites who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. Only after the Gospel began to be proclaimed farther afield, in the Greco-Roman world, did this understanding change (and not without some difficulty) through the inclusion of significant numbers of non-Jewish believers.
    • Pauline—Paul’s letters give us a vivid picture of the formation of a new, and distinctly Christian, religious identity, in the years 50-60 A.D. Especially in Galatians and Romans, Paul forges this through a rich and complex series of arguments and illustrations. Even when writing primarily to Gentiles, he draws upon the Old Testament and the covenant traditions related to Israel as the people of God. All of this is redefined, as the “new covenant”, strictly in terms of faith in Jesus Christ, accompanied by the presence/work of the Spirit (of God and Christ). It is, however, also the fulfillment of the original covenant (with Abraham, etc), one which many Israelites and Jews have rejected. According to Romans 9-11, Paul views this as temporary—a brief period during which Gentiles are included (with Jewish believers) as the people of God; ultimately, at the end of this period, the Israelite/Jewish people will come to accept Christ in larger numbers. It is possible that Rev 7:4-8 reflects a similar eschatological idea.
    • Restoration Imagery—According to at least one line of tradition (and interpretation), believers represent the “restoration of Israel” at the end-time. This is symbolized through the tradition, fundamental to much eschatological and Messianic thought, that Israel—the twelve tribes—will be restored, coming back to the land (and to Jerusalem) from the surrounding nations. As I have argued elsewhere, Jesus’ selection of twelve apostles likely has this idea in mind. Certainly, it features in the eschatological awareness of the book of Acts (cf. the upcoming article on this subject). Only, instead of the emphasis being on the twelve tribes (and, eventually, the nations) coming to Jerusalem, here the twelve apostles (representing the tribes), along with others, go out from Jerusalem to proclaim the Gospel into all the nations.

All three of these approaches have merit and value in understanding the symbolism of Rev 7:4-8. And, it should be stated in passing, that there can be little doubt as to the symbolic character of the numbering (a)riqmo/n) here—144,000 = 12 x 12 x 1000. We will look again at the interpretative possibilities when we turn to vv. 9ff (in the next daily note).

Finally, it is worth considering two peculiarities in the list of tribes here in vv. 5-8:

    1. The order does not match that of the traditional lists elsewhere in the Old Testament (Gen 35:16-26; 46:8-27; 49; Deut 33; Num 1:5-15; Ezek 48, etc). Placing Judah first has obvious Messianic significance (Rev 5:5, etc); but otherwise, there does not appear to be any clear meaning to the ordering of the rest of the names.
    2. The tribes of Levi and Joseph are not included in the tribal allotments of land, etc, but would be included in any proper genealogical list of the tribes which make up the “sons of Israel”. However, the list here in Revelation, curiously, includes Joseph’s son Manasseh (half-tribe for Joseph), but leaves out Dan. While there are negative traditions associated with Dan in the Old Testament (Gen 49:17; Judg 18:30, etc), it is by no means certain that this is the reason for the exclusion here. Some early Christian commentators came to adopt the explanation that the ‘Antichrist’ would come from the tribe of Dan (Irenaeus Against Heresies 5.30.2; Hippolytus On Christ and Antichrist 14:5ff; Koester, p. 418); but there is nothing in the book of Revelation itself to confirm this.

Believers and the World (Jn 17:20-23, continued)

As a continuation (and conclusion) to the recently posted article, on the statements regarding believers and “the world” (o( ko/smo$) in John 17:20-23, I mentioned three specific questions which I felt still needed to be addressed:

    • How does the unity of believers relate to the world trusting/knowing Jesus?
    • What is the significance of this for the use of the verb teleio/w (“make complete”) in verse 23?
    • How does the final clause of verse 23, with its motif of love, fit into the structure of the section?

I will briefly discuss each of these in turn.

1. How does the unity of believers relate to the world trusting/knowing Jesus?

The principal theme of verses 20-23 is Jesus’ request for the unity of his disciples (believers). This is expressed two ways:

    • With the neuter singular adjective e%n (“one”): “that they would (all) be one
    • Using the preposition e)n (“in”): believers in the Son (and the Father), and the Son in believers, just as the Father and Son are in one another.

The use of the comparative particle kaqw/$ (“just as”), and the relation of believers to the union between Father and Son, makes clear that believers share in the same (not just similar) unity that Father and Son share. This is a powerful theological (and spiritual) proposition, which may seem quite shocking to religious sensibilities, but it is not to be explained away or mitigated. The language used by Jesus (and the Gospel writer) must be allowed to stand. And yet, how does this unity relate to “the world”? In the main part of this article, I discussed how the concluding i%na-clauses, mentioning “the world”, are best understood as subordinate result clauses. Let us consider again how these fit in the parallel strophes of verses 20-23:

First strophe, verses 20-21:

    • “…(I ask) about the (one)s trusting in me through their word,
      • that [i%na] (they) all would be one [e%n]
      • just as [kaqw/$] you, Father, (are) in me and I in you,
      • that [i%na] they also would be in us,
        • (so) that [i%na] the world would trust that you se(n)t me forth.”

Second strophe, vv. 22-23:

    • “And the honor [do/ca] which you have given to me, I have given to them,
      • that [i%na] they would be one [e%n]
      • just as [kaqw/$] we (are) one [e%n]—I in them and you in me—
      • that [i%na] they would be completed into one [e%n]
        • (so) that [i%na] the world would know that you se(n)t me forth
          and (that) you loved them even as you loved me.”

For ease of reference, here are the two clauses in context, with the immediate statement regarding unity in bold:

“…that they…would be in us, (so) that the world would trust that you se(n)t me forth”
“…that they would be completed into one, (so) that the world would know that you se(n)t me forth”

How does the unity of believers lead the world (i.e. others in the world who are not yet believers) to trust and know (i.e. recognize) Jesus’ divine origin as Messiah and Son of God? Some would cite the example of Christian unity as something which might convince people of the truth of the Gospel. While this is a noble sentiment, it is not at all what is in view here in the Prayer. Rather, the unity of which Jesus speaks is fundamental and essential—the very identity of believers is defined by their/our union with God the Father and Jesus the Son. This union, indicated primarily by the preposition e)n (“in”, i.e. “in us”), is further defined three distinct ways in the Gospel of John; the divine Presence in believers is described in terms of: (1) Word [lo/go$], (2) Love [a)ga/ph], and (3) Spirit [pneu=ma]. It is the Word-Love-Spirit of God (and Christ), dwelling in and with believers, which brings others to trust and knowledge of the truth. This will be further discussed in the following two sections.

2. What is the significance of this for the use of the verb teleio/w (“make complete”) in verse 23?

In the earlier notes on verses 20-23, I pointed out how the use of the verb teleio/w (“[make] complete”), in the passive, with believers as the subject, occurs only here in the Gospel of John, but that four similar instances are found in the First Letter (2:5; 4:12, 17-18). The passages in 1 John share much of the same thought, language, and vocabulary as the Prayer-Discourse of Jn 17. There, too, the unity believers share with Father and Son is defined in terms of love (cf. section 3 below). However, I believe there is one aspect of the use of the verb here in verse 23 which has not yet been explored, and it relates specifically to the statement regarding the world trusting/knowing. The unity of believers is only realized collectively, not individually—but as a universal Community, bound together by the living Word-Love-Spirit of God. To that extent, unity is not realized until all believers are included—that is, when all the Elect/Chosen ones, living throughout the world, in all times and places, come to trust in Jesus, becoming true believers in Christ. This is wonderfully expressed, though using different imagery, in the “Good Shepherd” discourse:

“And I hold other sheep, which are not out of [i.e. from] this yard, and it is necessary for me to bring them also, and they (too) will hear my voice, and they will be a single herd [poimnh/], (with) one herder [poimh/n].” (10:16)

It must be emphasized that, though believers may gather (physically) into local communities, the unity spoken of by Jesus in the Gospel of John is entirely spiritual—it is truly a universal Community, realized and possible only by and through the presence of the Spirit. It is no coincidence that the giving of the Spirit follows almost directly after the death and resurrection of Jesus (20:21ff), and that this is indicated symbolically in the narrative at the moment of Jesus’ death (19:30):

    • His dying word on the cross: tete/lestai (“it is completed“, vb. tele/w closely related to teleio/w), after which
    • “…he gave along the Spirit” (pare/dwken to\ pneu=ma)

3. How does the final clause of verse 23, with its motif of love, fit into the structure of the section?

Verses 20-23 conclude with a statement that defines unity in terms of love (a)ga/ph)—that is to say, divine love, the love of God, which believers share by way of our union with Christ. This divine love cannot be separated (as an attribute) from the very Presence of God Himself, which believers are joined with by way of the Person of Jesus, through the Spirit. As mentioned above, from the standpoint of Johannine theology, Word, Love and Spirit, are largely synonymous, all three representing the living presence of God the Father and Jesus (the Son). This special meaning of a)ga/ph is seen throughout the Gospel, but especially in the Last Discourse (5:42; 8:42; 13:34-35; 14:15, 21ff; 15:9-13, 17, 19). It is even more prominent in the Letters (42 times, including 36 in 1 John). In 4:8, God Himself is identified as Love, and I mentioned above how believers being “made complete” is understood in terms of this love (2:5; 4:12, 17-18). In many ways, the First Letter takes up where the Last Discourse leaves off, both serving as detailed expositions of the “love commandment” in 13:34-35. The wording in 17:23 summarizes this exposition, but from the standpoint of the Father’s relationship to believers: “you loved them just as you loved me”.

However, according to the syntax of vv. 22-23, this statement is part of the i%na-clause which mentions the world knowing:

“…that they would be completed into one, (so) that the world would know that you se(n)t me forth, and (that) you loved them even as you loved me.”

The statement of God’s love is part of what the world comes to know:

    • “(so) that the world would know
      • that you sent me forth
      • and (that) you loved them even as you loved me”

Some commentators have struggled with the pronoun “them”, pointing out that, in context, it must refer to the believers (“the ones trusting in me…”) of v. 20, rather than to the immediate subject “the world”. However, according to the interpretation I set forth (cf. the main discussion), here “the world” refers ostensibly to believers—i.e. the Elect/Chosen ones, in the world, who have not yet become believers. This renders the immediate syntax more intelligible: those “in the world” who come to be believers realize the love God the Father has for them, a love that is identified in the person of his Son (Jesus). The wonderful reciprocity that defines both the unity and love which we share, as believers, and expressed here, is supplemented by Jesus’ earlier statement in 14:31:

“…(so) that the world would know that I love the Father, and even as the Father placed (a duty) on me to complete, so I do (it).”

Here the idea of believers “in the world” is less in view; the focus is rather on Jesus’ impending sacrificial death, and the time of darkness which accompanies it. The statement in v. 31 is preceded by an ominous declaration that “the chief/ruler of the world comes”, along with a message of encouragement that “he holds nothing on/in me”. That last phrase could mean “he has no part in me”, or “he holds nothing on me” in the sense of having “no power over me”; probably the latter is intended. In any event, the wording of v. 31a is quite similar to that of the closing words of 17:23—the former mentions Jesus’ love for the Father, the latter the Father’s love for Jesus. The world—everyone in it, not just the elect/believers—can recognize in Jesus’ death his great love for God.

It is the “love commandment” in 13:34-35 which relates more directly to the statement in 17:23:

“A new duty I give to you to complete: that you love each another—just as I loved you, that also you would love each other. In this, all people will know that you are my learners [i.e. disciples], if you hold love among [lit. in/on, e)n] each other.”

There is a similar matrix of thought and language, including the idea that people in the world will know as a result of the unifying love which believers share. Here the sense of believers as an example to the world is more plausible; yet, the emphasis is still squarely on believers and their relationship to Jesus.

If we consider the statements in 13:34-35, 14:31, and 17:23 in sequence, representing a kind of development of thought, it seems to parallel Christian ministry itself:

  • 13:34-35—Believers as ministers, representatives of Christ, in the world
    • Love—We are to love each other according to the example of Jesus (“just as” [kaqw/$] he loved us); his sacrificial death is implicit and fundamental to this love.
    • World’s Response—”All people” recognize this love as a sign that believers are disciples of Jesus, i.e. that they are Christians
  • 14:31—The Gospel message believers proclaim in the world is centered on the sacrificial death of Jesus, which frees us from the power of the world (“ruler of the world”, v. 30)
    • Love—Jesus’ love is embodied in his sacrificial death, and demonstrates his love for God the Father
    • World’s Response—Those in the world, both the Elect and non-elect, can recognize Jesus’ love for God in his sacrificial death
  • 17:23—Believers proclaim the Gospel (the Word), being guided and empowered by the living Word (the Spirit) which unites us with God the Father and Jesus (the Son)
    • Love—As believers we share (“even as” [kaqw/$]) in the same Love which God the Father has for Jesus (the Son); it is not just an attribute of God, but the Presence of God Himself.
    • World’s Response—The Elect/Chosen ones in the world come to know that Jesus is the Son sent by God the Father, and recognize the love which God has for them, uniting them with all other believers.

Believers and the World (John 17:20-23)

This is a follow-up article to the discussion on verses 20-23 of the Prayer-Discourse of Jesus in John 17 (part of a Monday Notes on Prayer series). It is necessary to examine the use of the word ko/smo$ (“world”) in the concluding phrase of the two (parallel) strophes that make up this section:

“(so) that the world would trust that you se(n)t me forth”
i%na o( ko/smo$ pisteu/h| o%ti su/ me a)pe/steila$ (v. 21d)
“(so) that the world would know that you se(n)t me forth…”
i%na ginw/skh| o( ko/smo$ o%ti su/ me a)pe/steila$
“…(and) that you loved them just as you loved me.” (v. 23c-d)

Jesus has been praying on behalf of believers, but now suddenly he shifts to the response of the “world”. There is some question as to the syntactical place of these two i%na-clauses, whether they are parallel to the prior i%na-clauses in each strophe (see the earlier discussion), or represent a subordinate result clause. In the first view, the world’s trusting/knowing would be part of the unity of believers in Jesus’ request; according to the second view, it is the result of the unity shared by believers. I consider the latter to be more likely, and more in keeping with the thought of the Prayer, and have rendered the conjunctive particle i%na to reflect this (i.e., “so that…”).

However, this reference to the “world” (ko/smo$) raises a problem. All throughout the Prayer, as well as the Last Discourse, and, indeed, the Gospel of John as a whole (with but few exceptions), the expression “the world” (o( ko/smo$) designates a realm of sin and darkness which is opposed to God and hostile to Christ; moreover, Jesus warns his disciples (and future believers), that, as long as they are living in the world, it will remain hostile to them (cf. 14:17, 22, 30; 15:18-25; 16:33; 17:9ff). This has been discussed repeatedly in the previous notes on chapter 17. Now, suddenly, Jesus speaks of the world trusting and knowing. How are we to understand this? There are several possible answers to this question:

1. It refers to a different kind (or level) of trust and knowledge, one which shows awareness of Jesus’ divine origins, but does not indicate true trust and knowledge. In traditional religious terms, we might refer to this as faith (of sorts), but not saving faith. There is some precedence for this in the Gospel of John. On several occasions, the populace at large (including Jesus’ opponents) are said to “trust” or “know”, but without any definite indication that they are true, committed believers (7:28ff; 8:30-31 [compare with the discourse that follows]; 11:45ff; 12:43-44). However, throughout the Gospel, the verbs pisteu/w (“trust”) and ginw/skw (“know”) are overwhelmingly used to characterize true believers, being used almost interchangeably. Even more to the point, the emphasis on Jesus as one “sent forth” (vb. a)poste/llw) by the Father serves as a shorthand for (true) trust/belief in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God (see esp. verse 3 of the Prayer).

2. An interpretation more in keeping with the portrait of “the world” as hostile to God and unable to accept the truth, is to read the subjunctive verb forms (“might trust”, “might know”) as indicating a possibility which, for the most part, will not be realized. In this view, the missionary work of the disciples serves as a challenge to the world which leads, not to true faith, but to judgment for their inability (and/or unwillingness) to accept the truth. This preserves the contrast between believers and the world, which Jesus states unequivocally again in verse 25. The theme of Judgment is certainly present in the Last Discourse (14:30 [cf. 12:31]; 15:22ff; 16:8-11, 33), but is generally absent from the Prayer-Discourse of chap. 17, and, it must be said, is quite foreign to the thought of verses 20-23.

3. A simple reading of the phrases, taking the words at face value, might suggest that Jesus is speaking of the wicked/sinners in the world being converted to faith by the witness of believers. This is a common enough Christian outlook which continues to inform missionary work and evangelistic preaching today. It is certainly present in the New Testament, especially in the Gospel context of Luke-Acts, where an emphasis on repentance and forgiveness of sin is an essential component of the Apostolic message (Lk 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 11:18; 17:30, etc). However, it is almost entirely absent from the Johannine writings. Apart from the episode in 7:53-8:11 (which likely was not part of the original Gospel), it is hard to find any examples referring to the conversion of sinners (5:14 is a rare instance, perhaps drawn from the wider Gospel tradition). Admittedly, some key passages in the Gospels have been understood this way (most notably 3:16-17), but only when taken somewhat out of context from the rest of the Gospel of John.

4. An interpretation closer to the mark would again be to understand the subjunctives as “might trust” / “might know”, but in the sense of “might be able to trust”, etc. In other words, through the work and Gospel of Jesus, the world is freed from the power of sin, and has the ability to accept Christ. This does not mean that all in the world will accept—indeed many (perhaps most) will not—however, they are no longer prevented from doing so by the power of evil (and the Evil One) at work in the world. As appealing as this view might be, it reflects a universalism that, I would maintain, is foreign to the Gospel of John. By “universalism” I do not mean it in an absolute or final sense (i.e. “everyone will be saved”), but in a qualified sense related to the human will (i.e. “everyone is able to be saved”). In classical theological terms, the contrast is between a universal and limited application of the atoning work of Jesus. It would be anachronistic to use either label in the case of the Johannine writings; however, it seems abundantly clear that the Gospel, in particular, evinces a strong view of what we would call Election/Predestination—i.e. believers come to Christ because they already belong to God, being “born” of God and “chosen” by Him beforehand (1:12-13; 3:21; 6:37ff, 44-45, 64-65ff; 8:42-47; 10:3-5, 14ff, 27-29; 18:37, etc). To be sure, through Christ’s work, believers are freed from the power of sin and darkness in the world (1:5; 8:12, 31-32; 12:35-36, 46; 14:30; 16:33, etc); however, from the standpoint of Johannine theology, they never really belonged to the world in the first place—they were “in” the world, but not “of” it. This is a central theme in the Prayer-Discourse of chapter 17 (vv. 2, 6, 9, 11ff).

In my view, a proper understanding of the phrases in question requires a close examination of the usage of the expression o( ko/smo$ (“the world”), beginning here in chapter 17, and widening out to the Last Discourse, the Gospel as a whole, and, finally to the Letters of John for comparison. Such a study is beyond the scope of this article; however, let us at least summarize the language and usage in the Last Discourse and the Prayer. Overall, in spite of some wordplay, o( ko/smo$ is part of a dualistic contrast—i.e. Jesus/Spirit/Believers vs. the World. A few points of detail:

    • The world is unable to receive the Spirit, and also unable to receive the Truth (“Spirit of Truth”) (14:17; 17:25); similarly, the world cannot “see” (i.e. recognize, accept) Jesus (14:19ff; 16:28)
    • The Spirit will judge/convict the world of its sin, this sin being that it does not trust in Jesus (16:8-11)
    • The world is contrasted with Jesus in the person of its chief/ruler (presumably to be identified with the Satan/Devil), a person (and/or personification) embodying evil. This “Ruler of the World”, and, the world itself, has no power over Jesus (14:30; 16:11, 33), who, in turn, has the power to remove believers from the world, i.e. freeing and protecting them from sin and evil (15:19; 17:15)
    • The world hates both Jesus and his disciples (believers), being hostile to them and persecuting them, etc (15:19; 16:20, 33)
    • Believers are not “of” (lit. “out of”, i.e. “from”) the world; rather, they are “of” God, belonging to the Father (14:19ff; 17:6ff, 16), and this is the reason for the world’s hatred of them (15:19; 17:14-15). The Father has given believers to Jesus, who, in turn, sends the Spirit to protect them in his place (14:26; 15:26; 16:7ff; 17:6, 9)
    • There is a clear contrast between the realm of the world (below) and that of the Father (above) (14:27; 16:28; 17:16ff)

Now let us look specifically at the way believers are contrasted with “the world” in chapter 17. In particular, there is an interplay of two expressions: “out of the world” (e)k tou= ko/smou) and “in the world” (e)n tw=| ko/smw|):

    • Believers are “out of [e)k] the world” in the sense that they/we do not belong to it; rather, they/we belong to God (vv. 6, 9). If believers, like Jesus, are “out of” the world, then it means that they/we are truly not “in [e)n]” it (v. 11).
      • In a secondary, but related, sense, God gave the disciples (believers) to Jesus “out of” the world (v. 6); this refers specifically to their/our coming to be believers in Christ.
    • The exact same point can be made, saying that believers are not “out of [e)k] the world”, meaning that they/we do not come from it—their/our true origins are from God (vv. 14, 16)
    • Yet it is also said that believers are not “out of [e)k] the world” in the sense they/we are still living on earth and, more importantly, must face the evil and hostility that dominates the world; in this sense, believers are “in [e)n] the world” (vv. 11, 13, 15)
      • Jesus’ ministry on behalf of believers relates to their being “in the world”: he speaks to them, giving them his word, “in the world” (v. 13), and sends them, as his representatives, out “in(to) the world” (v. 18)

Now, let us consider how this relates to the wording in vv. 21, 23. If we piece together the evidence in the Prayer, we can discern three key points:

    • Believers (the Elect) do not belong to the world (i.e. are not “of” it), but come from God
    • Yet believers remain living “in” the world, in the face of its darkness and evil
    • When believers are “given” by the Father to Jesus (the Son), they/we are taken “out of” the world and come to be believers in Christ

Thus, it would seem, when Jesus speaks of “the world” trusting and knowing as a result of the disciples’ (believers’) ministry, etc, it must be understood in light of the three points outlined above. In other words, here “the world” signifies the Elect/Chosen ones living in the world who have not yet come to be believers in Jesus. The same situation is described, though in different terms, in 10:16, where Jesus speaks of “other sheep”; of them he says that “it is necessary for me to bring/lead (them)”. And, from where does he, the herdsman, bring them? The answer is given here—from out of the world. The call, the sending out of the shepherd’s voice, is done through the work of other believers (“…trusting in me through their word”, v. 20), led and directed by the Spirit. I should say that the other universal-sounding statements in the Gospels, referring to the saving/salvation of “the world”, are best understood in this light as well (cf. 1:7, 29; 3:16-17; 6:33, 51; 12:32, 47).

If the above interpretation is indeed correct, there still remain three questions which I feel need to be addressed:

    • How does the unity of believers relate to the world trusting/knowing Jesus?
    • What is the significance of this for the use of the verb teleio/w (“make complete”) in verse 23?
    • How does the final clause of verse 23, with its motif of love, fit in to the structure of the section?

I will look at each of these briefly in the continuation of this article.