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St. Michael and All Angels: Revelation 12:7-12

Revelation 12 focuses on Satan and his war against the Church. Satan previously was able to enter God’s courts, albeit briefly, as he wandered to and fro on the earth (Job 1). The Accuser—since Satan is a title like Christ and not a proper name—opposes the saints, even though his accusations are frequently false (Zechariah 3:1-5; Jude 9; John 8:44). Even if he speaks about the past, he does not speak the truth, because the saints, covered with the Lord’s righteousness, can no longer be justly accused of them. They are gone, never to be brought up again (Psalm 103:12). Satan’s accusations, then, are a direct assault on God, which is why he is rebuked for speaking against the saints.

Satan’s foolishness knows no bounds, however, because he sought to destroy the male child of Revelation 12:5. This action prompted a reaction from heaven. The war of Revelation 12:7 is against the dragon, and the dragon is in a defensive posture. His judgment has come, because the fullness of his sin flowed forth from his attempted murder of the boy. God is not deaf to the plight of His Church on earth, and all the powers of heaven wage war in her defense.

The identity of Michael is a disputed question. Some think that this refers to Christ Himself. Michael, whose name means “Who is like God?”, is described in Jude 9 as an archangel. This is sometimes rejected on the grounds that Jude is part of the antilegomena (a weak argument, in my opinion, since Revelation itself belongs to that category). Further, the corresponding passage in Zechariah 3 states that the Lord Himself rebukes Satan, a statement attributed to Michael in Jude. The two are not mutually exclusive. The Lord is often described as speaking through agents, just as we often use similar language to say things like “The king waged war on the kingdom.” Even if the king’s generals and soldiers actually carried out the war, that hardly means that the king had no part in it.

Regardless of who Michael is—and I tend to think that it is the archangel—it does not change the meaning of the passage. The outcome of this war against the devil is his utter defeat and subsequent banishment from heaven. Nor do I think that we need to figure out the timing of this war. The general message is clear: even as the devil wages war on earth against the Church, he is already defeated and his final defeat is certain. He is fighting a losing battle, and God Himself fights for His Church. Whatever he might throw at us, Satan’s doom is certain, and he cannot win.

I think it’s worthwhile to mention that the word “dragon” carries a lot of cultural baggage with it. The image of a four-legged, winged, fire-breathing lizard is a much later concept. “Dragon” or perhaps “drake” in Greek describes a large snake. It is used in conjunction with the more general term “serpent” in Revelation 12:9. He is not an ordinary snake, to be sure, since he is described as having “seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems” (Revelation 12:3). But we must be careful so that we do not impose our cultural images upon the Bible. Yet this imagery recalls Genesis 3, where the snake tempts Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. As Satan sought our destruction from the very beginning, he remains a “roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

However, Satan is defeated by “the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:11). The death and resurrection of Jesus silenced the devil who had previously tried to tempt Him to sin. Christ’s resurrection proves that the devil is a liar, because it is undeniable proof of His righteousness. Yet Satan is also defeated by the witness of the saints, because the reign of Christ is not yet complete (Hebrews 2:8; 1 Corinthians 15:25). Bearing witness about the hope within us is an assault on the powers of darkness (2 Corinthians 10:4). This is Christ’s work within us, engaging us as soldiers in His victorious campaign to put all things under His feet.

Therefore, Satan should not make us abnormally afraid, as if he had the power to do as he pleases. “Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:9). The shield of faith extinguishes his flaming darts (Ephesians 6:16). He should not be underestimated, of course. His anger is fierce and he is unwavering in his rage. But he stood no chance against heaven. If God Himself is for us, who can be against us (Romans 8:31)? Those who are with us are more than those who are with him (2 Kings 6:16).

The Law in Eden

After the Lord formed Adam from the dust of the ground outside of Eden, he then placed him within the Garden to work the ground and keep it. At that moment, God issued the Law to Adam: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:15-17). Though brief, this passage is instructive for understanding the Law of God.

First, the Law is not evil. Paul explicitly denies such a conclusion: “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means!” (Romans 7:7). The Lord, after all, promulgates the Law before the fall into sin. Adam is subject to the Law also in his perfection, not only after the Fall. Even Paul’s distinction between law and grace in passages like Romans 6 and Galatians 5 is not a dichotomy between evil and good. Rather, the one who seeks to be justified according to the law seeks to be held righteous according to the very standard that proves him to be faithless. “Like Adam, they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me” (Hosea 6:7). The sinner cannot be declared innocent by the same Law which proves that he is guilty! The character of the Law has not changed, even with the Fall. It is we who are law-breakers.

Second, the Law is revealed by God. Adam, while still in the garden before sin, received the Law through revelation. He does not implicitly understand it, as if it was a matter of common sense or something similar. Adam hears the Law from the very mouth of God. The Law is not a set of rules seperate from God which He clarifies to man. The Lord is the Law-Giver, the one who speaks. Authority is rooted in this act of speaking, shown in a different way by Adam exercising his own authority through naming both the animals and his wife.

Thus, it is a misnomer to speak of natural law as if the creation had a set of implicit laws which are self-evident. This could lead to thinking that natural law is separate from God, which makes God’s positive law a mere clarification or addition to what is already generally known. But if that were true, how could men be held accountable to God for suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18)? God reveals Himself to all men in such a way that all are without any excuse before the judgment seat. Ignorance is not a valid defense, because “his invisble attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). Rather, all men seek to suppress what they know because they do not want to submit to His Law. There is only one Law, the Law of the Lord of heaven and earth.

Third, the Law proceeds from God. The Lord is the one who determines what is good and what is evil, apart from any consideration of man. This is not capricious, but the nature of law. The one subject to the Law, the hearer, must listen to the Giver of the Law, the speaker. The specific command to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil demonstrates this. Would you know what is good? Good is not eating of this tree. Would you know what is evil? Evil is eating of this tree. If this commandment seems arbitrary to us, it is because we are following after Adam, who refused to be subject and faithful to God and sought instead to be the arbiter of good and evil. After all, Satan, through the serpent, lied to Eve when he claimed that disobeying God would make them like Him (Genesis 3:5).

Fourth, the Law is eternal. If it was given to Adam prior to the fall into sin, it is not simply meant for this world as a corrective for sin. Sin itself is “missing the mark,” a mark set by the Law. Holiness is conformity to the Law, being set apart from the world and conform to the will of God. Therefore, the Law will not cease, just as the Law has not ceased for those who are in Christ. Rather, the curse of the Law, brought on by sin and necessary if Law is to be Law, has been taken away in Jesus. Christians are no longer a part of the old body, whose head is Adam, the body of sin and death. Christians have a new head in the New Adam, Jesus Christ, and are therefore placed back into a right standing before the Law.

Finally, the Law is all encompassing. The Lord commanded Adam to not eat of the tree as an act of obedience and worship. Because the Lord speaks, Adam demonstrates his righteousness through obedience to God. Yet Adam was not therefore free to do whatever he pleased when he was away from the tree. Such a reductive view of the Law was the mistake of the Pharisees, as if God only forbade a specific act and allowed for all others. Jesus Himself corrects that notion to show the true character of the Law (Matthew 5). Rather, the command given in the garden articulated the Great Commandment of the Law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Deuteronomy 6:5). Heart, soul, and mind are not limited to a “religious” part of our lives which have no bearing on anything else. Rather, we are to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5), because there is only one Law-Giver, the Lord God Almighty.

All Saints Day: Revelation 7:2-17

John’s vision in Revelation 7:2-17 comes in the midst of judgments. The Lamb is breaking open each of the seven great seals which enclose the scroll He took in Revelation 5:6-8. While the breaking of the seals tend to symbolize various judgments and fearful things happening on the earth, there is a comfort in knowing that the Lamb is the one doing these things. Such things are not beyond His control. As God permitted Satan to afflict Job (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6), so also His fearful judgments of sinners will accomplish exactly what He intends them to do (Isaiah 55:10-11). Therefore, just before the seventh seal is broken, John sees a vision of angels numbering the sons of Israel. The destroying angels are restrained for a time according to the will of God, apart from whom nothing can happen.

The numbering of the tribes itself is noteworthy for several reasons. First of all, unlike parallel numberings of Israel in passages like Numbers 1, the tribes are identical in size. Israel wandering in the wilderness had yet to come into their inheritance. Even within the promised land, they awaited a better country (Hebrews 11:13-16). Now, in this vision, Israel has come into her own. John sees in the people what Ezekiel had seen in the land: the portions are the same and God is in their midst (Ezekiel 48:1-29).

However, unlike in Ezekiel, the names of the tribes have changed. Notably absent are two tribes: Dan and Ephraim. Further, while Manasseh is present, Joseph also appears separately in the list, which was not typical for this list in the Old Testament. As far as Dan is concerned, this tribe was the first to fall into gross idolatry in the promised land (Judges 18), and Jeroboam set up one of his golden calves in that territory (1 Kings 12:28-30). Dan’s absence therefore seems to be an indirect way of describing Israel finally purged of the idolatry for which she suffered so much. As for Ephraim, the prophets frequently, but not exclusively, referred to this tribe as the tribe of Joseph (Zechariah 10:6 and Ezekiel 37:15-23, for example). This may also recall Israel’s blessing of the sons of Joseph and the preference shown to the younger Ephraim (Genesis 48).

Third, Israel is sealed prior to the vision of the great multitude later in the passage. This is not an incidental detail. As Paul says regarding Israel according to the flesh, “To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 9:5). Christ also says on several occasions that He “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). After all, God promised that the offspring of Abraham would be as numerous as the stars, and “in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 26:4). Through Israel, as the elder brother, the blessing of Christ would come to all nations.

Paul, of course, clarifies that belonging to Israel according to the flesh is not enough. “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). But the Israelite who believes is a natural branch returning to his own tree. John sees Israel no longer hardened. “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob” (Romans 11:26). Therefore, in that moment, the dividing wall of hostility has been broken down, and the two have become one (Ephesians 2:11-22). Israel and the nations have become one people, even as the honor shown to the believing and purified older brother persists to his glory for all time.

John also sees the great ingathering of the nations. They have entered into their Sabbath rest, resting from all turmoil and pain and worshiping God who has delivered them (Hebrews 4:9-10). Thus, the Sabbath finds its fulfillment in the great Sabbath. What we experience now in the midst of toil, work, and pain, often only one day in seven, shall become the totality. Even our imperfect liturgical forms will give way like shadows before the light in the fullness of that great Day. No longer will our hearts be burdened with distractions and worries! No longer will our lips only mouth words of praise! “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

One of the elders asks John a question which John does not know how to answer, much like Zechariah (Zechariah 4:1-14). This elder seeks to instruct John, and us through him, so that the vision may be clear. Revelation is not a sealed book, like many of the apocalyptic books in the Old Testament (Daniel 12:9-13). It is meant to comfort those who are in tribulation now, for by knowing “the things that must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1), those who hear this prophecy will not be caught unawares.

But the message is clear: here, in the midst of turmoil and tribulation, these saints now rest from their labors. The pains and sorrows of this world will soon come to an end. Purged of their sins, they will worship God in purity and sincerity. Free from their sorrows, they shall know a joy which knows no end. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).

Those of us who still toil and labor can rejoice knowing that our Sabbath rest awaits us. But we can also take heart knowing that those who have departed in the faith now rest in Christ awaiting His glorious return. Then, as Israel and the nations have become one man in Christ, so we who are left until His coming will be caught up together with Him (1 Thessalonians 4:17). The Church will no longer be at war, but she will be His people, one holy Bride, resting blameless in His sight and alive in Him, never to die again.

St. Michael and All Angels: Daniel 10:10-14, 12:1-3

The Lord God does not need any help to carry out His will, because He is perfectly capable of doing whatever He wills to do.  However, in His wisdom, God chooses to use His messengers, the angels, as a means of interacting with and protecting men.  The feast of St. Michael and All Angels provides an excellent opportunity for talking about the angels, perhaps mostly for dispelling common misunderstandings.

Angels are mostly anonymous in Scripture, but some of them are known to us.  Jude 9 refers to the “archangel Michael,” and Michael also fights against the dragon in Revelation 12:7.  Michael also appears in the book of Daniel, which appears to be the only reason why Daniel 10:10-14 and Daniel 12:1-3 are the Old Testament readings for this feast.  It is true that the most common “angel” in the Old Testament is the Angel of the Lord, which is a way of speaking of God Himself (Judges 6:22; 13:21-22).  The angels in general, while appearing throughout the Old Testament, are only rarely the primary focus of a passage (Psalm 91:11-12 is one example).  All of this should emphasize how little we know of the angels, which provides an excellent opportunity also for speaking about how we must remain silent where Scripture does not speak.  Even with this understanding, however, the readings from Daniel, chosen because they refer to Michael, violently rip up their context and lead to several misunderstandings.

They are part of the last major section of the book of Daniel, beginning at Daniel 10:1.  This vision comes to Daniel in the “third year of Cyrus, king of Persia.”  Cyrus, the Persian king who had conquered the kingdom of Babylon, made a proclamation in the first year of his reign that the exiles should return to Jerusalem and that the Temple should be rebuilt (2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4).  Daniel himself lived in Babylon “until the first year of King Cyrus” (Daniel 1:21).  Therefore, this final vision of Daniel occurs after the exiles have returned from Babylon.  Daniel himself is not in Jerusalem during the time of the vision, for it happens while he is near the Tigris river (Daniel 10:4).  He has moved from Susa, the Persian capital further east (Daniel 8:2), westward as far as the river, but it is not clear whether he is now dwelling there or travelling.

While in mourning, Daniel sees a vision of a man.  While some of the details differ, this man is the same as the appearance of the Son of Man to the Apostle John in Revelation 1:12-20.  “Beryl” in Daniel 10:6 is too vague a term to determine actual color, but the wheels of Ezekiel’s vision are described as shining beryl (Ezekiel 1:16; 10:9), which may suggest that this word is meant to describe the brightness of the man more than the actual color of his body.  The primary difference between Daniel and Revelation is that the Son of Man in Revelation holds the seven stars (the seven angels), stands among the seven lampstands (the seven churches), and has a sword going out of His mouth.  However, Christ tells John that “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore” (Revelation 1:18). Therefore, the victorious Christ appears to John, while it seems that Christ who was yet to come appears to Daniel.

The message in both cases is also the same.  Christ raises up Daniel and John, both of whom had fallen as though asleep or dead at the sight, and gives to them a message of what is to come (Daniel 10:10-11; Revelation 1:17-19).  John suffered because of Christ and was on Patmos; Daniel may have been suffering because of the arrogance of the Persian kings (Daniel 10:13).  Daniel 10-12 and Revelation as a whole therefore have the same purpose:  they are a message to those suffering of what is to come so that they would not lose hope.  God in His Providence will bring all these things to an end, and He will reign triumphant.  “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).  “But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand” (Mark 13:23).

Daniel 11, being a detailed historical overview from the time of the vision until the time of the end, therefore shows that God knows all things.  History does not just happen by accident.  While an exhaustive overview of this chapter would run too long, it might be enough to say that Daniel 11:1-4 describes Alexander the Great, his conquest of the Persian empire, and the division of his kingdom after his death.  This may only be seen clearly after the fact, which should drive home Christ’s warning that “concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36).  Daniel is not given a key to determine by current events where he is on a timeline.  Daniel himself is told “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are shut up and sealed until the time of the end” (Daniel 12:9).  But even if we do not know when the Lord will accomplish His purposes, the prophecy tells us very clearly that it will come.  It is a divine comfort to know that, even though we must wait, God is in control of all things.

Michael, however, figures into this prophecy of the end, but he is not the main focus.  He is described as “one of the chief princes.”  He assisted God the Son in opposing the kings of Persia (Daniel 10:13).  He also is described as having “charge of your people,” or perhaps “standing over” (Daniel 12:1).  Angels therefore aid the Lord in carrying out His work, including His judgments, and they are also set over His people for their good (also perhaps over individuals in Matthew 18:10).  All of this may be inferred from the readings, to be sure, but it is not the main point of Daniel 10-12.  One should be wary of choosing texts solely because of word associations.

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.