I do my most mediocre work on texts I know best. Familiarity breeds contempt. Knowledge, or the illusion of knowing something, can be an obstacle to progress. I read in a book on neuroscience that the pleasure of misunderstanding is indistinguishable from the pleasure of understanding. “Misunderstanding” does not advertise itself as that — it poses as insight.
How can we find a remedy for this problem when we get to the text that in my faith community is known as “the Three Angels’ Message” (Revelation 14:6-12)? This is a text we know well. It is a cornerstone of my denomination’s sense of identity. Familiarity hovers over the text to such an extent that few bother to go there — why spend time on something so well known? Fewer still dare suggest that this text, too, has fallen victim to the contempt that familiarity breeds.
My suggested remedies will be the ones that have helped me. The first is to become a re-reader, a recommendation already at the top of my list with respect to reading Revelation. The second is to become a slow reader. For me, this means to read the text in Greek over and over, to feel its tenor and cadence, to hear it read aloud as it was read in believers’ homes in the seven cities of Revelation. Reading the text in Greek is not an option for most readers but reading slowly is. Much can be gained by reading more than one translation.
Third, examine the Old Testament background of the text thoroughly. If one thing has guided my work as a New Testament scholar more than I think is the average, it is that I read the Old Testament background texts with the utmost care. This includes reading that text, too, in the original language and to examine how the best Old Testament scholars read the text in its context. I cannot begin to state how much this has enriched my quest.
Fourth, I need to be a questioning reader, seeking to overcome the attitude that I know my subject well and need not spend much effort on it. Fifth, submit to the rigor of peer review. I say this in case a scholar or teacher is reading this. To the non-specialist I will only say this: accept that for most texts there can be more than one plausible interpretation. Do not rush to shut down inquiry. We live by nothing less than peer review in the field of medicine, as I know well from the more than three hundred scientific articles that my wife has published over the years, the dissertations she has supervised, and all the articles she has been asked to review for various journals. When I took up biblical studies at an academic level, I decided that 1) I would try to publish outside my own denomination; 2) I would not self-publish; and 3) I would accept the rigor of peer review. I don’t think the concern is redundant, and “the Three Angels’ Message” could be a case in point.
I have in a previous submission quoted David Barr’s view, and I will do it again. We are in textual territory where “the dragon acts and God reacts.” It is “the dragon’s story.” What we call “the Three Angels’ Message” is not the dragon’s story, of course, but the message has a context, a horizon, and the horizon is the activity of the dragon. God takes an initiative aimed at pre-empting and muting the impact of the action. What I call framework can also be called context. No interpretation will succeed if it isolates the text from its context. The dissertation I wrote at the University of St. Andrews eventually gets to an examination of one single text, Revelation 14:12, but most of the thesis is devoted to context. What is the story line of the book as a whole? What are the concerns in the immediate context, in this case chapters 12-14? In broad strokes, we have a framework describing how the dragon acts (13:1-18), and John will describe how God reacts (14:6-12). What frames the story at this point is the dragon’s activity at the point when a final, climactic showdown is in the making. It is “the dragon’s story” in its final blaze.
For the reader concerned with detail, should we call it “the Three Angels’ Message” or “the Three Angels’ Messages”? I prefer the singular — it is one message — proclaimed in mid-heaven by three messengers. The hypothesis of one single message sharpens the focus and the sense that a confrontation is taking place.
“And I saw another angel flying in mid-heaven, with an eternally valid message to proclaim to those who live on the earth — to every nation and tribe and language and people” (14:6). This is the first glimpse of God’s reaction. The message is called a euangelion, without the article. The absence of the article indicates that John has not used the word before. The wise counsel, heeded by a few interpreters, is to let John explain the meaning.
The angel’s “gospel” should not be confused with the “gospel” in New Testament usage elsewhere even if “gospel” in the newest interpretations of the letters of Paul has acquired a meaning closer to what Revelation has in mind. For Old Testament background, Psalm 96:1-13 is the strongest candidate text. The “gospel” proclaimed in both places is good, but it is not — strictly speaking — news. It is “an eternally valid message” about God, truth raised from the mud of misrepresentation by the Lamb that was killed with violence (Revelation 5:6).
One of the translation options for the word Diabolos is Mudslinger. The adversary in the conflict is “the Devil and Satan” — the Mudslinger and the Antagonist (12:9; 20:2), with God as the target of the mudslinging. Appreciation for this diminishes the novelty in the message, but it magnifies the sense that something broken is being repaired. It must be repaired now, at the point when the dragon takes mudslinging and character-assassination to a new level. For this reason, there will be no concession to the Mudslinger. Every element in the angel’s message counts: it is “valid”; it is always and “eternally valid”; it refutes the misrepresentation brought to bear on God (Genesis 3:1).
The first messenger proclaims in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, for his hour has come — the critical moment [hē hora tēs kriseōs autou] — and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water” (Revelation 14:7, translation mine). What has the dragon done to make this a relevant reaction on God’s part? He has been spewing misrepresentation right and left and is in Revelation hard at work doing it. It is no accident that he is called “the Ancient Serpent, the Mudslinger and the Antagonist” (12:9; 20:2). It is no accident that the mouth is everywhere the most conspicuous anatomic feature of the monstrosity in the trumpets (9:17-19) and the beast from the sea (13:5-6). It is no accident that the “blasphemy” ascribed to the slanderer is consistently best understood as “slander,” misrepresentation, and mudslinging (13:1, 5, 6; 17:3).
To give God glory, a theme here as well as in the Gospel of John (John 12:28; 11:4, 40-44; 13:31-32), is to do the opposite of what the dragon is doing. Truth will replace slander; people will speak well of God. The choice is not to worship God or nothing — or to move from a state of believing in nothing to believing in God. It is a choice between two sides, a call to turn to God and away from the imitator. We can imagine that the messenger flying in mid-heaven has advanced training in Graeco-Roman rhetoric, knows where to put the emphasis and how to bring out the implied contrast. I invite you to practice the best possible intonation, in a loud voice:
worship him who created heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water (14:7),
not the one who destroys the rivers and the springs of water (8:10; 16:4)
We could go places with a message like that, with the right intonation! There is a contrast, would you agree, between the one who created “the springs of water” (14:7) and the one who destroys “the springs of water” (8:10; 16:4). Again, the devil is in the details.
Under such circumstances, what will “the hour of his judgment” look like (14:7)? Is it to be understood as a judicial event that begins at a certain point in time? God is the judge. Each human being has a case to be determined before the eternal bar of justice. Judgment is passed based on a life record completed. All the relevant facts are in. Within such a notion of judgment, the task of the messenger is to inform the inhabitants of the earth what God is doing and, while there is still time, put his or her house in order.
Such a conception might work, but there is a better one, within the framework that “the dragon acts and God reacts.” This is not judgment as a judicial event but judgment as revelatory moment. History is not finished. All the facts are not yet in. Krisis, the word for “judgment,” is now “the critical moment.” The dragon is about to show his hand, and “the hour of his [God’s] judgment” has the tenor of revelation. We have a similar notion in medicine, from the days before we had antibiotics. Pneumococcal pneumonia, then frequently a lethal disease, sometimes declared for life. In Norway, physicians called it “the crisis,” the moment when the disease would reveal what it was up to for a given patient.
We have precisely this notion of judgment in the Gospel of John, in almost the same words as in Revelation. Jesus is headed for the cross (John 12:20-33). He explains that the grain of wheat will fall into the ground and die (John 12:24). Self-giving is the law of life in this conception; it is also the path of discipleship (John 12:24-26). When he is lifted up (on the cross), minds will be changed, and people will be drawn to him (John 13:32). But the “judgment” in the story, the krisis, is revelatory, not judicial. It is judgment as “critical moment.”
Now is the judgment of this world — the critical moment [nun krisis estin tou kosmou toutou] — now the ruler of this world will be cast out (John 12:31, translation mine).
This notion works best in Revelation, too. If we take it in this direction, the subject is not the verdict God is passing on the inhabitants of the earth. Instead, the subject is a God who seeks to put the world in a state of high alert concerning the dragon’s design on them. It is indeed “the critical moment” (Revelation 14:7).
The messengers follow each other, the second messenger mindful of the message of his predecessor. My comment must be brief. “Babylon” needs a broad, cosmic, and trans-historical scope. It must not let go of its relation to the story of the dragon. He was once “the Shining One,” in one of the Bible’s finest poems described as “the king of Babylon” (Isaiah 14:4). That is Babylon’s point of origin. What is the point of completion? It is this: “And in you” — in this Babylon — “was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been killed with violence on earth” (Revelation 18:24). You can blame the Roman Empire for much, but we should not blame it for the blood “of all who have been killed with violence” (18:24). We can blame successors to Rome for all kinds of evils, but the Babylon that is behind the blood of “all” is a conception greater than these.
It is not hard to see the pattern of the dragon acting and God reacting in the third angel’s message. This was coming all along — the dragon’s action is the high point of “the mark of the beast” in the previous chapter (13:15-17). Partly by deception, partly by coercion, the triumvirate in Revelation 13 seeks to put its “mark” on “those who live on the earth.” God responds in two ways. First, he warns people not to take the mark (14:9-11). Next, he puts forward his own mark (7:1-17; 14:1), “the seal of God.” It is quite possible that God does this pre-emptively. Revelation does not present “the confrontation of signs” in a linear fashion; we must trace the tapestry by going back and forth in the text. (I have described “the confrontation of signs” in The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day.) Two things should be said about these “marks.” First, they are profoundly representative of the two sides of the cosmic conflict — the mark reflects the name. Second, the dragon’s side is in the business of imitation. Its “mark” must be, too.
I wish to end with the concluding statement of “the Three Angels’ Message,” Revelation 14:12. How should we read this text within a pattern where “the dragon acts and God reacts”? How should we read it, acknowledging that the dragon’s misrepresentation of God necessitated a mind-numbing investment to make right what went wrong? How, too, should we read it when it is obvious that God makes things right through the Lamb that was killed with violence?
I don’t think the answer is difficult, but it is different from the way many read this text. The usual way is to see two things affirmed, “the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (14:12). This is how Luther would have read it if he had bothered with Revelation: he would see law and gospel in the text, obligation and promise. This misses the mark in one of the most clarifying texts in Revelation. I propose to read it like this:
“What matters in this situation” — the situation when the cosmic conflict comes to an end— “is the perseverance of the saints, those who hold on to the commandments of God as revealed by the faithfulness of Jesus” (14:12). This translation affirms one thing, not two; it speaks of the constancy of God that was demonstrated in Jesus. “The faithfulness of Jesus” has in this translation not been separated from the key element in the book, the revelation of the Lamb as a victim of violence (5:6). It belongs to other paired phrases that dot the landscape of this book, all with similar meaning.
the word of God as explained by the testimony of Jesus Christ (1:2)
the word of God as explained by the testimony of Jesus (1:9)
the word of God as explained by the testimony they had in their possession (6:9)
the commandments of God as explained by the testimony of Jesus (12:17)
the commandments of God as explained by the faithfulness of Jesus (14:12)
the testimony of Jesus as it explains the word of God (20:4).
There is a melody in this book, a theme, even a refrain. God has been explained in the world through the witness of Jesus. This is what matters when imitation lets loose the final subversion (14:12). The dragon tried to imitate the testimony of Jesus, too; he also deals in witnesses pretending to be killed with violence (13:3). But it will not work. There is a telling difference between the two, the one who was killed with violence (5:6; 13:8) and the one who uses violence to kill (13:15; 18:24).
Revelation: For Re-Readers Only, January 5, 2019
Apokalypsis, January 8, 2019
Revelation and the Neighborhood, January 14, 2019
Timeout: Revelation and the Crisis of Historicism, January 18, 2019
Crisis in the Heavenly Council, January 21, 2019
Timeout: Cosmic Conflict vs. Historicism, January 25, 2019
Silence in Heaven — for about Half an Hour, January 28, 2019
Timeout: From Daniel to Revelation, February 1, 2019
Revelation 7: The 144,000 and the 233,000, February 4, 2019
Timeout: Storm Clouds over Historicism, February 7, 2019
Revelation’s Trumpets: The Devil is in the Details, February 11, 2019
Timeout: Disarray and Trivia in the Trumpets, February 14, 2019
Revelation 12: Don’t Rush at Ground Zero, February 19, 2019
Timeout: “1,260 Days” and the Smoke Signals in Flyover Country, February 22, 2019
Revelation 13: “The Dragon’s Story,” February 26, 2019
Timeout: “And Its Number is 666,” February 28, 2019
Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
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