A vision of the unseen

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. (Revelation 21:22-23, ESV)

Here is Joseph Mangina’s commentary on the wondrous passage above:

The vision reaches its surprising climax in John’s report of something he does not see, namely, a temple. The city has no need of a temple, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” Their radiance is such that even the illumination provided by sun and stars is superfluous. Special sacraments are no longer necessary, because in the new eon “all truth will be openly and perfectly revealed” (Aquinas, Summa theologiae). The life of the city will not point to God, it will be in God. But John’s remark that “[the city’s] lamp is the Lamb” permits us to say something St. Thomas does not: in the age to come, the vision of God will be mediated through the risen, glorified flesh of Jesus. The heavenly city is not the end of the church, for the church is simply God’s people. It is, however, the end of religion, the demarcation of sacred space from profane space and liturgical time from ordinary time, for the purpose of making present the absent god. 

Three constants in the Book of Revelation

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William Holman Hunt, “The Light of the World” (1851-53)

During the academic year, our school has devoted chapel to the study of Revelation. Anglican theologian Joseph L. Mangina offers a well-articulated summary of this mesmerizing and mysterious book:

The Apocalypse opens with letters to seven churches in seven cities. Asia Minor of the late first century may be culturally remote from us, but it is, for all that, a relatively familiar and this-worldly setting. We think we can find our feet here. The book then takes us on a wild, Spirit-driven itinerary in which we behold God’s throne, see the scroll of history opened, suffer earth’s tribulation, meet terrifying monsters, observe with horror the degradation of the human city, and finally see the dead judged and death itself destroyed. Through it all, there have been three constants: (1) the uniqueness and sovereignty of the Creator God of Israel; (2) the victory of the slaughtered Lamb, both in itself and as witnessed in the lives of his followers; (3) the gathering of a community for all peoples, tribes, nations, and languages, the “kingdom” and “priestly people” alluded to in the book’s opening lines (1:6).  

Who is the Great Whore of Babylon?

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William Blake, “The Whore of Babylon” (1809)

Anglican theologian Joseph Mangina answers the question in his commentary on the seventeenth and eighteenth chapters in the Book of Revelation:

William Blake brilliantly captures the dynamics of this scene in his 1809 pen and watercolor sketch The Whore of Babylon (British Museum), which shows the beast as having “seven ugly human heads; the plump whore, stripped to the waist rides him side-saddle holding her golden cup out of which fly personified ‘abominations and filthiness and fornications.’ ” Blake insightfully portrays the scene as a mixture of love and death. Thus one of the beast’s heads looks back up at the whore, with a leering expression on its face, while another is busy devouring human figures on the earth below. Most striking of all is just how wretched and miserable the whore seems. She is clearly unhappy, trapped along with the beast in a covenant of death. While it would be impossible to call her innocent, it is clear in Blake’s portrayal—as in John’s own—that she is not just an agent of evil but also its victim. The vision brilliantly depicts the self-consuming, self-destroying power of evil, which lacks the gift of affirmation (both of God and of self) that is built into the fabric of the created order and especially into the life of spiritual beings. 

***

Who is the whore? John tells us that she is seated on “many waters,” a convention for speaking of Babylon-on-the-Euphrates, but which might also be taken as referring to any seagoing power. She has clients who are politically and militarily powerful. She is gaudy and rich. She is drunk with the blood of martyrs and saints. All the signs point to the whore’s being Rome, the murderess responsible for the deaths of the apostles Peter and Paul and more recently for the martyrdom of Antipas of Pergamum. In John’s time, there was simply no other “great city” on a par with Rome’s scale and ambition. This judgment seems to be confirmed by many voices in the ancient church. No less than St. Augustine called Rome “the second Babylonia, as it were, the Babylonia of the West.” 

Nevertheless, the Great Whore of Babylon is more than just Rome, as the beast is more than just the military power that allowed her to extend her reach across the Mediterranean. Any such simple, empirical identification would be guilty of what William Blake famously called “single vision.” It would mean reading an apocalyptic work in a most unapocalyptic way—that is, unimaginatively. Blake’s own watercolor of the beast and the whore points to realities of his own time—the beast to be understood as scientific materialism, perhaps, and the whore as the modern spirit of capitalism—even as it gestures toward something more universal. 

So it was, too, for Augustine, who identified “the great city” with Rome and with the earthly city as such, which is constructed not just of bricks and mortar but of imagination and desire. There is no question but that Babylon is a figure of desire, longing, eros. She is beautiful, yet fallen; powerful, but exploited; strong, but with the kind of strength that seeks to control and dominate— “the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.” To use Pauline language, we might see the whore as a kind of Adamic figure, a representation of fallen humanity driven by desire gone wrong: “We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God . . . . The earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord” (City of God). 

***

In Western theology, it was above all St. Augustine who taught us that the human being is essentially constituted by desire (eros). Passion in the negative sense (epithymia) is nothing else but disordered desire, a longing that fails to acknowledge God as what the heart yearns for: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” At the same time, desire is never simply an individual phenomenon. Far from being simple and self-validating, desire is to be seen as “a social product . . . a complex and multidimensional network of movement that does not simply originate within the individual self but pulls and pushes the self in different directions from both inside and outside the person.” What the Apocalypse reveals to us is (a) that not just the human soul, but the human city is constructed by desire—Babylon is a cooperative endeavor—and (b) that this endeavor has become hopelessly corrupted by sin. The city is the glory of humans as political animals—that is God’s purpose for it. The city is a whore riding on the back of a pimp, a seven-headed monster who will soon devour the whole world, consuming the whore in the process—that is the eschatological reality on the verge of overtaking John and his hearers. Whatever the city might be in the divine intention, now in these last days it has become violent and exploitative, ugly and deformed, an appropriately haglike consort for its master the beast. God’s people have no choice but to “come out of her.” 

The question once again poses itself, what is the referent of such language? Is Babylon what John thought it was in the first century, or does the image expand to encompass other realities that the church has had to struggle with across its history? Even if it could be shown that John believed the empire to be the apocalyptic whore, this would not fix the meaning of the image once for all. The whore is a character from the end of the story whom we encounter in the middle of the story. If the church lives out of Christ’s victory, it lives in the midst of the great city and all it entails. Just what it means to say this cannot be neatly determined in advance, since history (rather inconveniently) has to be lived before it can be narrated. What the Apocalypse does is not to narrate history in advance, but to describe the pattern of suffering, tribulation, and oppression that is intrinsic to the church’s historical existence. The church, we might say, is on a pilgrimage through time, in the course of which it encounters Babylon again and again, always in different forms and guises. The Babylon of imperial Rome will be different from the Babylon that Blake imagined in industrial England, which will be different yet again from the Babylon of late modern capitalism, where goods and services are traded electronically and at the speed of light, but where “human souls” are still being traded. The appearance of the figure of Babylon in history is not uniform, nor is every human society or economic system equally deserving of the name. What it means, then, for the church to flee Babylon for the wilderness will also differ in particular concrete situations. Discerning the shape of this pilgrimage is among the chief tasks of theological ethics. 

To use simpler and more traditional language, “Babylon” names the world (ho kosmos) in the negative New Testament sense. The church cannot avoid living in the world, but it may not itself be “worldly.” While the worldly church is a contradiction in terms, this possibility has unfortunately been realized all too often in Christian history. In extreme cases the church may be charged with actually having become Babylon, the spotless bride who has traded in her finery for the tawdry dress of the whore. This trope is biblically far more appropriate than the one that calls the church or its minsters “antichrist.” In the Old Testament, Jerusalem or Daughter Zion can also be castigated as a harlot, and the harlot/bride contrast is implied by Revelation itself. If Israel can be unfaithful to God, so can the church . . . . 

We expect the world to be Babylon; that goes with its being the earthly city. But for the church to be so corrupted is an unspeakable evil. It means that the lust for worldly power and influence has replaced fidelity to Christ. Like the whore in our present passage, the church as Babylon consorts freely with “the kings of the earth,” in such a way that it is no longer fighting in the Lamb’s army; indeed, it has gone over to the enemy. What it means to “come out of Babylon” in such a situation is obviously highly problematic. Suffice it to say that, prior to the sixteenth century, the trope was not used to justify the separation from the church, but as an impetus to repentance, reform, and renewal. The church is our mother, even when it looks like Babylon. Hans Urs von Balthasar thus reminds us that the church in Christian tradition was often viewed as castra meretrix (“chaste harlot”), a people beloved by God despite its manifest faults. 

The eschatological exodus

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Matthias Gerung, “The Giving of the Seven Bowls of Wrath” (c. 1531)

A biblically literate reader of Revelation 16 will surely notice that the seven bowls of God’s wrath recall the Egyptian plagues in Exodus 7-12.

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Anglican theologian Joseph Mangina explores the typological affinity in his commentary on Revelation, always focusing on the big picture:

Clearly the correlation is a very loose one. Rather than setting forth a one-to-one equivalency between the two sets of plagues, the vision reflects a basic judgment that “this” (the eschatological judgment of the world in Christ) is like “that” (God’s liberating action on behalf of his people at the Red Sea). The vision thus sustains the exodus theme already noticed. Just as the goal of the exodus was not the death of the Egyptians, but Israel’s deliverance, so the purpose of the bowls is not the destruction of humanity but the gathering of a people. Comparing the plagues of Revelation to the story of the exodus shows that the gathering of the faithful on Mount Zion and the song of the Lamb precede John’s vision of the seven plagues. If Exodus shows things in chronological order, the Apocalypse shows them in teleological order. The way (through tribulation and judgment) is ordered toward the goal (communion with God, as realized in the life and death of the Lamb). If the nations, those who “bore the mark of the beast and worshiped its image” (16:2), are to become the people of Israel’s God, then they must be liberated from their enslavement to the powers. One cannot serve both God and the beast

The bifocal vision of the apocalyptic imagination

In the fourteenth chapter of Revelation, John beholds a Christophany, the appearance of Christ harvesting the earth:

Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand. And another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to him who sat on the cloud, “Put in your sickle, and reap, for the hour to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.” So he who sat on the cloud swung his sickle across the earth, and the earth was reaped.

Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle.And another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over the fire, and he called with a loud voice to the one who had the sharp sickle, “Put in your sickle and gather the clusters from the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.” So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia. (14:14-20)

Anglican Joseph Mangina’s commentary is worth quoting because he upholds the paradoxical tensions within Christ and emphasizes the numerical significance behind the Lamb’s bloody self-sacrifice:

The apocalyptic imagination is characterized by its “bifocal vision.” Although, among the powers of this world, Babylon is the greater shedder of blood, this image fuses in John’s mind with the blood of the slaughtered Lamb and of his followers. Christ’s death thus becomes the definitive Christian interpretation of the words spoken by YHWH in Isaiah: 

I have trodden the winepress alone,
and from the peoples no one was with me; 
I trod them in my anger
and trampled them in my wrath;
their lifeblood splattered on my garments,
and stained all my apparel. (Isa. 63:3)

Christ then, is both the harvester and the harvested, he who treads the vintage and he who is trodden upon by the powers of this world. He is “the trampled grape, the wine poured out, the dead for all the dead, the condemned for all the condemned” (Jacques Ellul). The blood of Christ is a sign not of death but of life. Moreover, the sheer quantity of the blood that flows from the winepress – “as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia” – suggests the extraordinary scope of Christ’s act of self-offering. Four is the number of the cosmos, of creation; four squared indicates absolute intensification; four squared multiplied by one hundred indicates that this blood is sufficient to drown an empire. As the armies of Pharaoh were swept away by the waters of the Red Sea, so the demonic powers and their agents will be swept away not by military prowess but by the life-giving blood of the Lamb.  

Toward a theology of suffering

Since being diagnosed with cancer, I have sought to deepen my understanding on the role of suffering in human life. In his epigraph to The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis quotes from a sermon of the Scottish minister and writer, George MacDonald: “The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His.” To my mind, this crystallizes the biblical theology of suffering. The implied logic is clear enough (Matt. 16:24-26):

  • If Jesus Christ bore the cross, then his disciples shall bear the cross.
  • I am a disciple of Jesus Christ.
  • Therefore, I shall bear the cross.

And where this is cross-bearing, there is also suffering. But I am consoled inexpressibly by knowing that the God I worship is a Suffering Servant (Isa. 52:13-53:12). Immanuel suffers for me and with me. These prepositions make all the difference to the sufferer. Because Immanuel suffers for me, I am given a perfect model—both fully human and fully divine—of what it looks like to suffer well. Because Immanuel suffers with me, I am fortified when weak, emboldened when afraid, and, most of all, loved when lonely.

I recently listened to Pastor John Piper’s inspired sermon, “Christ and Cancer,” on Romans 18:14-28:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  

Piper unpacks six affirmations toward a theology of suffering, which have fortified me with hope.

  1. All creation has been subjected to futility.
  2. An age of deliverance and redemption is coming.
  3. Christ purchased, demonstrated, and gave a foretaste of deliverance.
  4. God controls all suffering for the good of his people.
  5. We should pray for healing power and sustaining grace.
  6. We should always trust in the power and goodness of God.

While all of these affirmations are important and belong together, I have especially needed to hear the fourth one:

God controls who gets sick and who gets well, and all his decisions are for the good of his children, even if they may be very painful and long-lasting. It was God who subjected creation to futility and corruption, and he is the one who can liberate it again. In Exodus 4:11, when Moses refused to go speak to Pharaoh, God said to him, “Who made man’s mouth? Who makes him dumb or deaf or seeing or blind? Is it not I the Lord?” Behind all sickness is finally the sovereign hand of God. God speaks in Deuteronomy 32:39, “See now that I, I am he, and there is no God besides me; it is I who put to death and give life. I have wounded and it is I who heal; and there is no one who can deliver from my hand.”

But what about Satan? Isn’t he the great enemy of our wholeness? Doesn’t he attack us morally and physically? Wasn’t it Satan who tormented Job? Yes, it was. But Satan has no power but what is allotted to him by God. He is an enemy on a chain. In fact, for the writer of the book of Job it was not wrong to say that the sores afflicted by Satan were sent from God. For example, in Job 2:7 we read, “So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord, and afflicted Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.” Then after Job’s wife urges him to curse God and die, Job says, “Shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord and not receive evil?” And lest we think that Job erred in attributing to God his sores afflicted by Satan, the writer adds in verse 10, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” In other words, it is no sin to recognize the sovereign hand of God even behind a disease of which Satan may be the more immediate cause.

Satan may be sly but on some things he is stupid, because he fails to see that all his attempts to despoil the godly are simply turned by God’s providence into occasions for the purifying and strengthening of faith. God’s goal for his people in this age is not primarily to rid them of sickness and pain, but to purge us of all the remnants of sin and cause us in our weakness to cleave to him as our only hope.

My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by him; for those whom the Lord loves he disciplines, and he scourges every son whom he receives . . . he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. (Hebrews 12:561011)

All the affliction that comes to the children of God, whether through persecution or sickness, is intended by God to increase our holiness by causing us to rely more on the God who raises the dead (2 Corinthians 1:9). If we get angry at God in our sickness we are rejecting his love. For it is always in love that he disciplines his children. It is for our good and we must seek to learn some rich lesson of faith from it. Then we will say with the psalmist, “It was good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn thy statutes . . . I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are righteous, and that in faithfulness thou hast afflicted me” (Psalm 119:7175). That is my fourth affirmation: ultimately God controls who gets sick and who gets well and all his decisions are for the good of his children, even if the pain is great and the sickness long. For as the last verse of our text, Romans 8:28, says, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose.”

On learning true prayer only from Jesus Christ

As I undertake a reading of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Prayerbook of the Bible: An Introduction to the Psalms, I am struck by three reasons that every Christian should read and pray the Psalms with regularity: first, “Jesus himself says of the Psalms in general that they announced his death and resurrection and the preaching of the gospel” (Luke 24:44); second, “the Psalter is entirely taken up into the prayer of Jesus,” commonly known as the Lord’s Prayer; and third, “Jesus died on the cross with words from the Psalms on his lips.”* Bonhoeffer’s christological interpretation of the Psalms is persuasive:

Now there is in the Holy Scriptures one book that differs from all other books of the Bible in that it contains only prayers. That book is the Psalms. At first it is something very astonishing that there is a prayerbook in the Bible. The Holy Scriptures are, to be sure, God’s Word to us. But prayers are human words. How then do they come to be in the Bible? Let us make no mistake: the Bible is God’s Word, even in the Psalms. Then are the prayers to God really God’s own Word? That seems difficult for us to understand. We grasp it only when we consider that we can learn true prayer only from Jesus Christ, and that it is, therefore, the word of the Son of God, who lives with us human beings, to God the Father, who lives in eternity. Jesus Christ has brought before God every need, every joy, every thanksgiving, and every hope of humankind. In Jesus’ mouth the human word becomes God’s Word. When we pray along with the prayer of Christ, God’s Word becomes again a human word. Thus all prayers of the Bible are such prayers, which we pray together with Jesus Christ, prayers in which Christ includes us, and through which Christ brings us before the face of God. Otherwise there are no true prayers, for only in and with Jesus Christ can we truly pray.

To summarize the above, all the other books in the Bible are God’s Word to us, whereas the Psalms is God’s Word for us as mediated through his Son, Jesus Christ.

Since “David, as the anointed king of the chosen people of God, is a prototype of Jesus Christ” and author of 73 out of 150 psalms, Bonhoeffer contends that “David prayed not only out of the personal raptures of his heart, but from Christ dwelling in him. To be sure, the one who prays these psalms, David, remains himself; but Christ dwells in him and with him.” Bonhoeffer explains this mystery:

How is it possible that a human being and Jesus Christ pray the Psalter simultaneously? It is the incarnate Son of God, who has borne all human weakness in his own flesh, who here pours out the heart of all humanity before God, and who stands in our place and prays for us. He has known torment and pain, guilt and death more deeply than we have. Therefore it is the prayer of the human nature assumed by Christ that comes before God here. It is really our prayer. But since the Son of God knows us better than we know ourselves, and was truly human for our sake, it is also really the Son’s prayer. It can become our prayer only because it was his prayer.

*See Matt 27:46 and Mark 15:34, where the words of Jesus are derived from Ps. 22:2: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” See also Luke 23:46, which cites the words of Jesus derived from Ps. 31:6: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”