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Reformation: Revelation 14:6-7

Historically, the lectionary consisted of only two readings: an epistle and a Gospel. Adding a third reading, typically from the Old Testament, is a fairly recent innovation. I believe that this is a salutary practice, because too often the Old Testament functions as only a preliminary to the New. Highly typological interpretations, seeing signs and portents in the strangest of places, only highlights this problem. Adding an Old Testament reading to the historic lectionary is highly beneficial for the Church.

However, because of this, feasts and festivals tend to add a third reading from the New Testament rather than from the Old. Reformation Day is one such example of this, though there are several which do this, including next week on All Saints. While there is certainly no law mandating one way or the other, one might wish for an Old Testament reading also on those days, if only to emphasize the unity of all of Scripture.

Revelation 14:6-7, the “first reading” for Reformation, is actually the traditional epistle reading. The use of Romans 3:19-28, highlighting an important aspect of the Reformation, is more recent, though perhaps more fitting to the occasion. Choosing Revelation 14:6-7 for Reformation is problematic for a number of reasons.

First, the selection is entirely too short. It separates the first angel of Revelation 14 from the other two, and in the process somewhat distorts the intent of the passage. These three angels are harbingers of God’s coming wrath upon the earth. The second angel, for example, follows after the first, crying: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” The third also follows after and foretells the coming torment of those who worship the beast. Their torment will be unending and they will have no rest day or night. Therefore, while the first angel calls forth a cry to fear God and worship Him, the emphasis falls upon the judgment. Fear God and give Him glory, because He is about to demonstrate His righteousness and holiness in judging the earth. This judgment is indeed a source of joy for His people, as the Psalm declares “Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord, for He comes, for He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in His faithfulness” (Psalm 96:12-13). But the message of the three angels is one which should cause the earth to tremble and not to rejoice. “Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in Him” (Psalm 2:12).

Second, for this reason, the tenor of the passage is somewhat dischordant with the tenor of the day. The intent of Reformation Day is not an exercise in glory, but a giving thanks for what God has done through the Reformation. As such, it seems appropriate to talk about the distinctive emphases highlighted in the Reformation, such as the nature of grace and the glory of God. Speaking of God’s coming wrath is always important, of course, and it must not be neglected, but commemorations tend to reflect on God’s mighty works in the past as a comfort for the present. His wrath is needed lest we forsake Him who has been so faithful toward us sinners, but we need to recall the things He has done as well.

Third, there has been a tendency to interpret this passage as a Biblical reference to Martin Luther. It certainly has a long pedigree, dating back as early as Matthias Hoe von Hoenegg (1580-1645), who in 1612 could not see the first angel as referring to anything other than Luther and the coming of the Reformation (source, in Latin). On the one hand, it is not impossible that the Bible would point to coming historical figures. God is the Lord of History, and all things are in His hand. That is, after all, the point of books like Revelation. It is difficult to see how a passage like Daniel 11:3 could refer to anyone other than Alexander the Great, for example.

On the other hand, however, interpreting Revelation 14:6-7 as a reference to Luther seems to rely on this very separation of the first angel from the other two. Hoenegg could see Luther as proclaiming judgment upon Papal darkness, but this interpretation seems too uncertain. What would a passage like this mean for the Christians in the midst of pagan darkness, if it could only refer to the Reformation and to Luther? Would that not also mean treating the book of Revelation as a play-by-play of the End Times? Better, I think, to recognize that the angel proclaims a judgment upon sin which comforts God’s people. Sin and the devil will not triumph. Though you suffer now, God will render judgment upon His enemies. Luther and the Reformation is a historical example of the faithfulness of the holy God, whose victory will be complete. Babylon, with her many faces and many forms, will fall, and the kingdom of our Lord shall be established forever and ever. Amen.

Seventh Sunday after Trinity: Genesis 2:7-17

Genesis 2:7-17 is part of the first “generations” section of the book which begins in Genesis 2:4, if the preceding material is taken as a kind of introduction to the following divisions. It is a foundational section not only for Genesis, but also for all of Holy Scripture, since it includes the creation of man, the creation of woman, the fall into sin, and the murder of Abel. Moses has different purposes in mind here than he did in the introduction of Genesis, and the “generations” structure helps illustrate this. “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth” points to what comes after them. The primary focus is the generations and not the generator, which is why the “generations of Terah” in Genesis 11:27, for example, is primarily concerned with Abraham, his son. This first section, therefore, is concerned primarily with the “descendants” of God and the heavens and the earth: man, particularly Adam and his family.

This reading is also an excellent exercise in Biblical interpretation, because every passage of Scripture is important. Genesis 2:10-14 is a geography lesson which we will explore in more detail, but there is a sinful inclination to dismiss it as irrelevant. But the Holy Spirit does not speak in vain: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4; see also 1 Corinthians 10:11 and 2 Timothy 3:16-17). If the passage in question seems pointless, the problem is with us, because we do not understand.

Consider, then, the first part of this reading. God creates Adam from the dust of the ground and breathes into him the breath of life. He also plants a garden in Eden and places every good tree in it. The Lord is our Creator and apart from Him there is no life. However, note that the garden is placed in Eden. The garden itself is not named Eden! The reference is a specific location, which Moses clarifies below, not a world-garden or anything of the sort. This is especially important because Adam is created outside of Eden and placed into it. He is not in the garden “by right,” but because of God’s almighty Providence. Everything which Adam has belongs “by right” to God, and Adam receives it because of God’s love toward him. The Lord “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). In Eden, just as now, everything we have is a gift.

The special trees also emphasize this. God does not give the tree of life as a kind of super-fruit which perpetuates physical life. He gives the tree as a constant reminder that life flows from God and is not ours “by right.” The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is also not a super-fruit which brings death or knowledge in eating it. It is a sign toward Adam of his creaturehood: what is good and what is evil is the prerogative of God and not man. What is good? To listen to His voice and not eat of this tree. What is evil? To disobey His voice and eat of this tree. God speaks and man listens. If this seems unjust or arbitrary, this speaks to our sinful nature. Adam was not content to be a hearer and desired to be the judge instead. This sinful desire against our creaturehood is the basic root of all sin.

All of this brings us to the geographical description of Eden. This section has a real point and should not be passed by for two reasons. First, it is not good to dismiss this as being the geography of the pre-Flood world which is no longer in existence. Such an approach is too easy, by which I mean that it consigns the description to being useless for us, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Second, Moses writes this with a view to his hearers. Why would he write something which would be incomprehensible even to those who first heard it? The mention of Assyria itself in Genesis 2:14 is proof of this. Moses is writing with real geography in mind to describe a place which could, in fact, be located. Nor is it sufficient to say that we no longer have rivers named Gihon or Pishon, because place-names change all the time, even in the Bible (Jerusalem was called Jebus by the Jebusites, for example in Judges 19:11).

The world has, of course, physically changed over the course of time. Rivers flow in different beds than they did in ancient days, especially in a shifting land like Mesopotamia. Nor should an attempt to locate Eden be taken as a kind of “proof” for the Bible, because men would worship such a “proof” as an idol, like they did the bronze snake which they named Nehushtan (2 Kings 18:4). But even if we cannot accurately locate Eden anymore, Moses is not writing fantasy. Eden was a real place and had a real garden. The Flood may have wiped it away, but we are not told this. It is entirely possible that the Flood changed essentially nothing, geographically speaking. It was, to use an expression of George Stoeckhardt, a “wonder-judgment.” Being a miracle, we are called to believe the one who speaks with authority through His holy Scriptures. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:4)!

Therefore, I think two serious possibilities exist. The first is a bit more difficult reading, but in my opinion (and only as an opinion) a more likely. If one follows Genesis 2:10 upstream by translating “became four rivers” with the more literal “became (or had) four heads,” this would place the region of Eden near what is now the Persian Gulf. The Tigris and the Euphrates empty into the Gulf. If one reads this passage from the context of the land of Israel, the Pishon and the Gihon are the “furthest away” in the east. The Tigris and the Euphrates are respectively “closer.” Therefore, the Pishon may be the modern Karun in Iran and the Gihon the modern Karkheh (also called the Ulai river in Daniel 8:2). All of these rivers join together into one before dumping into the Gulf. The difficulty is, of course, having to “read upstream,” which is more awkward.

The other possibility is placing Eden near the actual headwaters of the Tigris and the Euphrates in modern Armenia, which are actually quite close to each other. The Pishon and the Gihon would be rivers flowing in opposite directions, probably into the Black Sea and/or the Caspian. This has the advantage of being a more “natural” and “downstream” reading, but these rivers have never been known to actually connect. It is not impossible, since Sodom used to be “well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord” (Genesis 13:10).

Ultimately, these two possibilities are better than relegating this to myth or engaging in allegory. Identifying the Pishon and the Gihon with other, but farther away, world rivers is not helpful for this reason. Better to consider real options than engaging in sheer fancy.

Three final observations. First, the names of the rivers are instructive. The Pishon is likely derived from the word meaning “to leap, jump” used in Jeremiah 50:11, Nahum 3:18, Habakkuk 1:8, and Malachi 4:2. Pishon therefore means “Jumper” or maybe “Bubbler,” emphasizing its liveliness. The Gihon likely comes from the verb meaning “to burst forth” used in Judges 20:33, Ezekiel 32:2, Micah 4:10, Job 38:8, and Job 40:23. Gihon therefore means “Gusher” or “Charger.” Such names are fitting for rivers which are connected to the one (nameless!) river which flows through the garden of God.

Second, Moses records that the land of Havilah was filled with all kinds of “expensive” things, like gold and precious stones (Genesis 2:11-12). Bdellium itself may be a resin, an incense related to myrrh, though this is uncertain. What is certain is the general wealth of that land. However, note the location. Gold and “expensive” things are not in the garden. They are not evil, but they are also not necessary. To obtain them, Adam would have to leave Eden. In Eden is life and the words of the living God. Gold is good, but the Gospel is far better. “The rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:9-10). “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). “One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42).

Finally, the Lord places Adam into the garden to work it and till it. Work is not in itself evil. Toil where the fruits do not match the labor is the curse laid upon mankind (Genesis 3:17-18). Work is God-pleasing. “If anyone is not wiling to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16). Like the giving of the Law in Eden, work precedes the Fall and is therefore a part of God’s good creation.

Reading Revelation with Goesswein (Part 6): Dating and Outline

The date and the outline of Revelation

Gösswein says with the great certainty that is his accustomed tone that Revelation was written in John’s old age during the reign of Domitian somewhere between AD 95 and 97. Though he cannot say precisely what year it was written, he avers that the persecution John suffered was the systematic persecution in Domitian’s time, not some sporadic, localized difficulty. Gösswein’s reasons for dating the book are threefold:

  1. The book is not early because Paul is gone. There is no indication of his presence among the churches of Asia Minor in the letters that occupy the first couple chapters of Revelation. For Gösswein that arguable textual fact slides right into the assertion that “all of the apostles had gone home except for John.” I do not think that follows necessarily from the absence of Paul in Asia Minor, but since this series is about Gösswein’s hermeneutics and not my own, it is by the by.
  2. The book is not early because early church tradition (no particular text is cited by Gösswein) says unanimously that Domitian banned John to the island of Patmos, whereon John received the Revelation. This happened near the end of Domitian’s reign, which is where Gösswein gets his AD 95-97 since Domitian died on 18 September 96.
  3. The book is not early because the churches have lost their first love. Gösswein’s rhetoric is impressive and densely Scriptural on this point. John’s words are meant to recall, to reassemble, and to firm up the failing churches descending into every kind of vice and heresy.

Of the three points, 1) and 3) are rather difficult to prove. 1) is an argument from silence, whereas John may have ignored Paul or Paul could have been entirely elsewhere (Spain or Rome, for example). 3) has the advantage of referencing the loss of first love John attributes to the Ephesian church (Rev. 2:4) but may create a unity of affect or concern where none exists. Not every church is soundly rebuked. Some are worse than others in their moral condition or delusions. And if one holds 1 Corinthians to be among Paul’s earliest or his earliest letter, there is no obstacle to believing that the church has been beset by all manner of problems from its inception. 2) is Gösswein’s strongest case for his dating of Revelation, but he spends comparatively very little time on it, despite its historical pedigree, which he does not mention.

The book itself he divides into seven parts, and to conclude our introductory material, here is a translation of his outline:

The first [section] (ch. 1:9-3) presents to us Christ as the Governor of the church, who walks among seven golden lights, and shows us how he governs seven congregations with his words.

The second (ch. 4-8:1) reveals him as the King who has the future in his hands and who also so rules the world that all sorrow must serve his church for the best.

In the third (ch. 8:2-11) Christ appears as High Priest in his holy church, who will not let the church’s borders be overwhelmed, though seven trumpets call awake entire armies of erring spirits.

The fourth paints Christ’s battle with the dragon, the world power hostile to God and the antichrist, in general outline down to the destruction of the enemies (ch. 12-14).

The fifth section (ch. 15-19) shows God’s judgments upon the enemies unto the satisfaction the wrathful righteousness at last finds and the song of triumph to which the elect give voice.

The sixth section (ch. 20) reveals how Christ has the dragon on a chain, until he throws him into the eternal murk, so that that dragon cannot any longer hinder the building up of the church, as Christ has permitted [hitherto].

The seventh section gives a physical pictures of the fulfillment of the kingdom of God. With it the entire Holy Scripture concludes, whose beginning speaks of creation and fall and whose ending speaks of rebirth (Mt. 19:28).

Revelation with Goesswein (Part 5): Darkness and light

The darkness and the light

Of all the books in the Bible, Revelation is popularly held to be the darkest, the most difficult, the strangest book of Scripture. Bible classes spends years attempting to unravel its mysteries, but many Christians react to its puzzles in just the opposite way by throwing up their hands in exasperation and forgetting the book they never knew. Its reputation is far, far greater than the knowledge of it, so that Gösswein can speak of Revelation as a “nest of chiliasts,” and in his day as in ours, specific Christian pastors and teachers spring immediately to mind.

Is misuse of Scripture a testimony to Scripture’s darkness and perhaps Scripture’s uselessness? If no one can agree on what Revelation means, why try? Extending the same question one step further: if no one can agree on what Scripture means in so many places, why try? This mass of disagreement, fanatical opinion, skeptical disdain, and textual obscurity is daunting. But Gösswein neither throws up his hands nor insists with idiotic vehemence. He does not think the problem with Revelation is the book of Revelation. The problem with Revelation is who reads it.

Scripture is not a book like other books that just anyone can take up and read. A person who reads Revelation apart from the Spirit of God reads only darkness. Gösswein:

All divine revelation is to [the unspiritual reader] concealment and growing darkness, because the flesh has no enlightened eyes of understanding for the things of the Spirit of God.

Scripture is not unclear because its divine Author is not Himself unclear, uncertain, or unable to express Himself in human language. Scripture is found to be dark by those who are in the dark. Scripture is distant and inscrutable to those who are distant from the Lord.

This only appears to be tautological until one connects it to a point Gösswein makes about the importance Revelation has for chiliasts, those who read the book in what he describes as a “fleshly” manner. One will find in Revelation either chiliastic puzzles or nothing comprehensible so long as one reads without the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. Gösswein himself “grew up among chiliasts and imbibed chiliasm with my mother’s milk.” He knows what it is and how it is that people find in Revelation fantastic schemes of earthly kingdoms and Jesus reigning like David from a throne in the city of Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jews. That fleshly longing for earthly glory and power Gösswein even identifies with “state-churchliness (Staatskirchentum) and the ‘Christian state,’” connecting chiliastic dreams of earthly power and military strife with the church’s longing for earthly validation and support apart from God’s Word.

As he makes the point that Scripture must be understood on its own terms, so that the one who would understand Revelation should above all read the biblical prophets, especially Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Daniel, Gösswein explains that there is only one way for man to receive God’s light so that he can read and understand Scripture. There is only one “cure” for chiliasm or any other fleshly way of reading Scripture and of understanding the Lord. He says it is the same way David was shown the light: the “terrors of the law must go through the whole body,” and then the “Sun of Righteousness in the gospel must rise, so that the gospel becomes everything.”

Scripture must be understood on its own terms, and its own terms begin with the reader’s knowledge of God’s law and His gospel. That dynamic makes the reader a wholly different person than he was before, enlightened by the Spirit with the knowledge of Christ. Only the one who knows the gospel can find Scripture profitable to him as he searches out Scripture’s treasures, and they are opened to him, clearly and beautifully with the Spirit teaching the reader from Scripture what Scripture itself means. Scripture is clear to those with eyes to see. Scripture in every part is glorious and endlessly rewarding to those with eyes fixed on Christ.

Reading Revelation with Goesswein, Part 4: Apostolicity

The apostolicity of Revelation

Though we have already covered the authorship of Revelation and Gösswein’s unbending assertion of the apostle John’s authorship of the book, there is another ground for critiquing the book’s apostolic origin. If a critic finds everywhere that the oldest orthodox authors affirm the apostle’s authorship, he can still turn to what Gösswein calls “inner criticism.” “Inner criticism” examines the style, the vocabulary, and other literary factors, and in this case, finds little to no evidence that John wrote Revelation.

Gösswein defends the book on several fronts:

Inspiration does not obliterate variety of expression and style.

The apparent strangeness of Revelation is no obstacle to its inspiration by the Holy Spirit. If the same Spirit spoke in “many and various ways through the prophets” and if the same Spirit spoke through Peter and through Paul, then He can also speak through John in that apostle’s very distinctive manner of expressing the truths of Christ. Gösswein makes this point briefly and concludes with the rhetorical flourish: “Where is there anywhere in [Revelation] that would be against divine inspiration and an apostolic manner of writing, against the honor and the doctrine of Jesus Christ?”

Revelation isn’t a book for beginners.

It is no accident that Revelation is last in the canon of Scripture. Gösswein quotes Luthardt’s 1861 commentary, “One should not begin the reading of Holy Scripture with it; rather should he close his reading with it.” Then Gösswein says in his own words, “It is not for children and beginners in knowledge, any less than the books of Ezekiel and Daniel.” Then with characteristic Latin brevity, Jerome says in Gösswein’s final quote, “Revelation has as many secrets as words.” The book is not impenetrable, but it is not for the faint of heart or for the one unskilled in Scripture. That Revelation quotes the Old Testament more than any other New Testament means for the reader that much more fruitful but hard labor.

The book everywhere bears the marks of the apostle John.

Gösswein briefly rejects Erasmus’ rather frivolous contention that the apostle’s provision of his own name in Revelation, something he does not do in the gospel or his epistles, means that the apostle did not write Revelation. He points out that Jeremiah names himself 120 times as no argument that it is un-Christian to name oneself in an inspired writing. Likewise the churchly title on many manuscripts attributing the book to “John the Divine” or “John the Theologian,” pompous as such as a title may seem to some, is neither the apostle’s self-description nor an inaccurate description of a man who teaches Christ so richly.

The strongest portion of Gösswein’s defense is his tracing of Revelation’s connections to other Johannine writings. Critics from Erasmus to the towering figure of late 19th-century higher criticism, De Wette, were certain the book was too stylistically estranged from John’s gospel and epistles that the author of Revelation had to be someone other than the evangelist or letter writer. Gösswein responds in several ways:

The number of Semitisms in the book results from John’s need to clothe divine thoughts in “the old holy language of the Hebrews” because it had “for such a long time been the clothing of prophecy.” The abundance of Semitisms incomprehensible to Gentile audiences is an argument for Revelation’s date within the first generation of Christians, before the relative eclipse of ethnically Jewish Christians within a massively Gentile church had occurred.

De Wette’s failure to comprehend the book’s high Christology and graphic manner of expression proves “the natural man receives nothing from the Spirit of God.” The higher critic’s inability to comprehend Scripture is the product of unbelief. He does not grasp Scripture because he has not grasped Christ by faith. Therefore the simple idea that John could be expressing himself rather differently under persecution in Patmos than in his gospel or his epistles becomes for the higher critic proof that the book is non-apostolic. The unbelieving mind will find to be true what the unbelieving heart already believes.

Revelation links up very well with other Johannine works:

  1. Quoting John Gerhard’s 1643 commentary, Gösswein points to the divine command to spread the apostolic knowledge of Christ at Rev 1:1; Jn. 21:24; and 1 Jn. 1:1.
  2. No other apostle or evangelist than John names the Son of God the Word, as he does at Jn. 1:1; 2:14; 1 Jn. 1:1; 5:7; and Rev. 19:13.
  3. John often speaks of witnessing, bearing witness, and witnesses at Jn. 5:39; 14:15, 21, 23; 15:26; 19:35; 21:25; 1 Jn. 1:2; and Rev. 1:2, 5, 9; 12:17; 14:12; 17:6; 19:10; and 22:9, 14.
  4. John calls Jesus the Lamb of God in Jn. 1:19 and twenty-nine times in Revelation.
  5. In his gospel John speaks of those who pierced Christ (19:34, 37) as he does at Rev. 1:7.
  6. 1 Jn. 1:7 is clear that Christ washes and cleanses from sin by his blood, as Rev. 1:6 also states.
  7. The image of water and the well of life appears in John’s gospel (4:10, 14; 7:38) and in Revelation 7:17; 21:6; 22:1, 17.

All of these points taken together, the Scripture itself testifying to the apostolicity and the christocentricity of Revelation along with John’s gospel and his epistles, amount to an overwhelming testimony that Revelation is the work of the apostle John, high and difficult as its construction and style may be, that clearly proclaims Christ the Lamb of God as Savior.

Reading Revelation with Goesswein, Part 3: Authorship

The authorship of Revelation

Before covering specific opinions about the authorship of Revelation, we should note that Gösswein’s use of patristic material and accurate knowledge of the Fathers are exemplary for a parish pastor. His opinions are strong but well-founded, and his coverage of authorship in four or five pages is as comprehensive as anything except the most specialized modern commentaries. He does not plead his simplicity as “just a parish pastor” or his ignorance as “not a professional exegete.” There is no necessary distinction between the pastor, the scholar, and the exegete. Gösswein unites those roles in himself to expound Scripture.

Gösswein unapologetically affirms that the apostle John authored Revelation. His contention on the authorship of Revelation is that uncertainty on the topic dates from the third century with Marcion’s denial of its Johannine provenance. Tertullian is quoted to effect that though Marcion denies Revelation’s Johannine authorship, the lines of bishops in the seven churches of Revelation can be traced back to John (Contra Marcionem, lib. IV). Gösswein himself points out that none of the seven churches mentioned in the book is the source of any doubt about Revelation’s apostolic authorship. Gösswein finds many citations of or allusions to Revelation in the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna. Irenaeus’ simple use of Revelation as “a writing of the Apostle John very often” and defense of the reading of 666 in Rev. 13:18 against differing manuscripts’ reading of 616 witness (Adversus haereses V:30) to the knowledge of Revelation and the affirmation of its Johannine authorship by a disciple of Polycarp and a native of Asia Minor.

Clement of Alexandria gives no indication that anyone opposes the apostolic authorship of Revelation, citing the book simply as the apostle John’s work. Gösswein also cites Origen’s unqualified affirmation of John’s authorship and names other supporters of the same position: Melito of Sardis, Papias, Theophilus of Antioch, Justin Martyr. He affirms that not only is apostolic authorship universally maintained by the Fathers but that also all agree that “in great old age, exiled to the island of Patmos, John the apostle received the Revelation.” He cites Eusebius, who mentions the historical circumstance of the Revelation and the doubts about the book on the basis of “critical comparison of the style, dogmatic polemic, and the darkness of the misuse of the book.” Gösswein does not understand Papias (cited in Eusebius) as affirming a separate “presbyter John” from the apostle but uncomplicatedly uses Papias as part of his evidence.

The patristic doubters of its apostolic authorship, of whom Gösswein mentions Dionysius of Alexandria and Jerome chiefly, complain of its obscure style, the darkness of its symbols and words, and the “fleshly, Jewish, and heathen thoughts of the chiliasts…too closely related” to the book. So for Gösswein the heretical misuse of the book is the source of the later Fathers’ doubts about the book. Its heretical misuse is the source of its orthodox neglect. What began with the doubts of the heretic Marcion is recapitulated in the dislike of Jerome for the apostolic book.

Gösswein sees church history as the battleground of orthodoxy with heresy, a battle extending into every realm of church life, including isagogical issues like the authorship of biblical books. He utilizes closely argued historical research to discover the third-century origin of doubts of Revelation’s apostolic authorship and marshals many Fathers to refute those doubts and affirm the book’s apostolic provenance.

Reading Revelation with Goesswein, Part 2: Purpose

The purpose of Revelation

The purpose of any book of Scripture illuminates its meaning for its first readers and for us. So far as we can determine, a book’s occasion heightens our understanding of what the Holy Spirit is accomplishing whenever that portion of Scripture is preached, read, and taken to heart. Over the next several segments we will work through Gösswein’s introduction to Revelation, considering its canonicity, its naysayers, and its historical witnesses and occasion. Today we begin with Gösswein’s majestic opening paragraphs on the heart of Revelation.

He begins in medias res quoting from Ps. 110:7, 88:18, and 69:2 on the tribulation and suffering of the Son of Man. In the midst of the Son of Man’s trampling down the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:16), He experienced “the evil of the old serpent and the angst of hell.” He raised His head again, took the keys of hell and death for Himself, and set Himself down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. Ps. 8:6 is the pronunciation of the Father upon the Victor: Sit at My right hand! Gösswein puts the risen Christ into a dialogue with the Father, so that the announcement of Christ’s session is met with Christ’s pronouncement: To Me is given all power in heaven and on earth (Mt. 28:18). Clearly both the work of reconciliation is completed, and all things are now subject to Christ’s humanity.

Why begin there? Gösswein must begin with the work and nature of Christ because Revelation is about the work and nature of Christ. Christ no longer suffers in His own body, for “after His ascension to the throne of the Majesty He suffers no longer in His Person, but in His members, who have daily to do with His enemies and through much tribulation must come into His kingdom.” Revelation is about the connection between the suffering, risen, and victorious kingly Christ and His suffering members upon earth, bearing witness to His kingdom. Gösswein quotes Philipp Nicolai at length to make clear that the weapon of Christ’s kingdom is His Word alone. This apostolic book is another weapon in the war against Satan. The apostolic words of Revelation guide the church through the tribulation it now suffers into the eternal kingdom of Christ, just as Christ was once guided by the Psalms through His destiny as atoning Messiah to the Father’s right hand.

So Gösswein’s understanding of Revelation is that through it the Holy Spirit comforts the church concerning the future. Thereby the church does not lose heart in suffering. Through Revelation the “light of consolation and of hope” is lit again for us. Revelation clarifies that Christ’s kingdom is a “kingdom of the cross” (Kreuzreich). Whoever will not enlist himself under the cross cannot be a disciple of the Crucified. Gösswein will even say that Revelation is “best understood in struggles and needs,” because “it is a book for the church of the cross (die Kreuzkirche), for whom [Revelation] paints in prophetic pictures the struggle of Michael with the dragon to its final outcome.” One major difficulty in understanding is then the reader’s unfamiliarity with tribulation and suffering in the Name of Christ. He who does not suffer with Christ cannot understand Christ’s words. This personal aspect of understanding Scripture will recur again and again throughout the introduction and in the commentary itself.

Revelation is a book for the suffering, a book for martyrs, a book for Christ’s church that bears Christ’s cross until the day when it is approved and glorified by the Father, at Whose right hand our Royal Messiah already sits. Already King Jesus has trampled down the serpent’s head, and already to Christ belongs all power in heaven and on earth. Already the Victor reigns forever.

Reading Revelation with Goesswein: Part 1

Why read Scripture with the early American Lutheran fathers?

Some things are rightly consigned to history’s dustbin. Some words and some works may be safely taken out never to return. Only the most minutely focused antiquarian could disagree. “Of the making of many books there is no end,” so that what was said before will likely be said again elsewhere at another time. Bible commentaries may be the chief of sinners in the “making of many books” and among the most numerous of all the volumes relegated to being forgotten. Browsing through a used bookstore, one can find many commentaries once common and now largely unknown: Jamieson-Fausset-Brown’s single-volume commentary, Adam Clarke, J. Vernon McGee, the old run of The Interpreter’s Bible so redolent of mid-twentieth-century mainline American Protestantism.

Why then pick up and read through what is still more obscure—American Lutheran commentaries? One of the largest forms of Protestantism in the United States, Lutherans are notoriously theologically reclusive, speaking largely to themselves and with themselves. If you aren’t a Lutheran, you have now found an undiscovered and far country. As we first take up G. Gösswein’s Scriptural and Upbuilding Explanation of the Revelation of St. John (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1900), you may find an understanding of Revelation relatively uncommon in American Christianity. If you are a Lutheran, especially in a church body descended from the old Synodical Conference, you may be familiar with Siegbert W. Becker’s Revelation: The Distant Triumph Song (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1985) or the more recent Revelation – Concordia Commentary by Louis Brighton (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1998). Some non-Lutherans and Lutherans will have heard of R. C. H. Lenski’s The Interpretation of St. John’s Revelation (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1943). Becker and Brighton are nearly unknown outside Lutheranism, and Lenski’s star has faded from previous years. You may find him alongside J. Vernon McGee, standing in a pile on the floor of that used bookstore.

To take up again books now forgotten is to awaken to the height and breadth and length and depth of the cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Gösswein’s originally German book is available in English but is little known and less studied. He lived in very different times for American Christianity, American Lutheranism, and his own Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States (now the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod) than Lenski, Becker, Brighton, or anyone reading this. His stresses and excurses, his emphases and his givens will be different from Lenski, Becker, Brighton, or anyone reading this. The first reason to take up Scripture with the early American Lutheran fathers in hand is to let them speak on their own terms, whether we are interested in them merely historically or because they are our spiritual fathers as confessional American Lutherans. Their works should be saved from the demons of disinterest and forgetting.

Never do we come to Scripture alone. Scripture shapes us and molds us and is its own interpreter, but it has already shaped and molded and interpreted and refreshed and perfected many, many before us. It has created the cloud of witnesses whose testimony so strongly urges us to take hold of Scripture more and more even as it takes hold of us more and more. If we do not understand how the witnesses speak or what they said or what they meant, we are the poorer for it. If we do not know our fathers (I speak chiefly to Lutherans), we do not know ourselves. Reading Scripture with the fathers is an exercise in not letting our own thoughts be obvious. We cannot be self-critical or fruitful in growing in the Scriptures if our own presuppositions, thought processes, and conclusions are obvious to us, whether because we share them with our contemporaries or share them with our fathers. We need to follow what moves the fathers make in understanding Scripture, what they chose to comment upon, what they left aside, and what Scripture made of them to understand ourselves, our readings, and our place in what the Spirit is doing throughout time in His church.