Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Living Apocalypse - Part 2

For the next few weeks I'll be posting on Revelation 2:1-3:22 - the Seven Letters to the Churches - out of my new book Living Apocalypse: A Revelation Reader and A Guide for the Perplexed.

Please join us and share your comments and insights.

Who are these angels? (see previous post)

Many today put forward the latter suggestion, however, it may not be the most accurate. While it is true that the word ‘angel’ almost always means messenger and is found over sixty times in the Apocalypse, not including these letters, it is noteworthy that each of these times it refers to a heavenly being. Consequently, it seems unlikely that the address to ‘angel’ in the letters is a reference to a human messenger or leader.

What about the possibility that these angels are guardian angels? While uncommon, this view is not completely without merit. There is a reference to this in the book of Daniel (10:13, 20, 21), where nations seem to have something like a guardian angel. In our context however, this is difficult to support as it does not quite make sense to see John as commissioned to write these letters to guardian angels with instructions for them to perform their guardianship more effectively. Another problem with this interpretation, as well as the previous one, lies within the letters themselves. Each of them has the particular congregations and specific location in mind, and is practically concerned with their daily lives.

Another interpretation considers the angels as heavenly counterparts of earthly congregations. This should not be taken literally, as if John sees the congregations seated in the heavens above, answering to their equivalents below. It is better to think of them as existentially in heaven though living on earth. In other words, we can imagine this as symbolically conveying the truth that there is an aspect of heavenly existence related to their earthly lives in Christ.

John writes to earthly communities characterized by their failures and weaknesses, successes and strengths. However, these communities have one feature which distinguishes them from any other earthly communities. They are said to be ‘in Jesus’ and are therefore made priests and a kingdom with him (1:6, 9). It is because of this fact that John addresses his letters to the ‘angel’. He is aiming to show these Christians that they have a heavenly orientation as their existence is also ‘in Jesus’ who is in heaven. Their earthly conduct and actions should reflect this heavenly existence and it is this existence that John wants to stress. Of course, we must remember that Christ is also in the midst of the lampstands. These two realities, Christ present with the church on earth and they with him in heaven are cause for great reassurance, especially in the midst of terrible persecution.

It may be helpful here to think of the two images used in 1:20. We have stars (angels) and lampstands, both of which seem to point to the churches and both of which symbolize light. One is an earthly light, the other heavenly. Is it possible that this reflects the dual character of the church? If so, perhaps the two-sided nature of the church works out something like this: First, the church must act to preserve faith in Christ in the face of persecution and hardship. The church is to keep its lampstand lit as the turbulent winds of deceit seek to extinguish the light of the gospel. The assurance that this can be carried out and the protection it offers comes from the fact that Christ is among the lampstands (1:13).

Second, the churches were, as the church is today, an eschatological reality. They and we already belong, in some sense, to the new world. Each individual who has believed on Christ is made a new creation. That new creation is in reality a sign of the rule of God breaking into the world (first through the coming of Christ, then through the very existence of the church as we who are part of it await the redemption of our bodies and the universe itself upon Christ’s return), and transferring us from one rule to the other. In other words, the future has broken into the present. Therefore, those in Christ already share and participate in the reality of being present with God in heaven just as the stars and angels. The assurance of this reality and the protection it offers is found in the fact that Christ holds the seven stars (angels) in his right hand. This indicates his power to sustain the churches through any and every persecution or difficulty (see Eph. 2:6-10; Phil. 3:15-21; and Col. 3:1 for Paul’s view of this interpretive option where he clearly emphasizes the ‘already but not yet’ feature of salvation).