First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Christ the King

William Loader

Christ the King: 25 November  Revelation 1:4b-8

If we begin by looking at the whole of 1:4 and not just its second half, we see that the context of our passage is a formal greeting, based on what in some Christian circles had become common. Letter writing seems to be one place where very traditional forms persist. We still begin letters with "Dear.." and end them with some variation of "Yours sincerely". It is surprising that the patterns persist. Email and SMS communication have developed their own formal protocols. The common protocol in the ancient world of the New Testament took the form: X to Y, Hi! (Paul to the church at Corinth, greetings). The Christian form of the "greeting" favoured a word meaning "grace" (charis) rather than the common word which meant something like "be glad or happy" (chairein). The Jewish greeting was usually, "Peace" (Shalom). Some Christians - and it appears some Jews - combined both influences and produced a greeting of "grace and peace" or "mercy and peace".

The formal framework was a structure within which to include major emphases and significant themes, especially those pertaining to the letter which followed. This is certainly the case here. It is no casual greeting. It is no ordinary grace and peace, but grace and peace from a special source. John is wishing his readers grace and peace from God. It is, in fact, more complex. John describes God as "The one who is", an allusion to the Old Testament tradition in Exodus according to which God interpreted his name as meaning: "I am who I am".

Then, as now, this description opens a range of possibilities. It was a way that some non Jews also loved to speak of their gods. It evokes a sense of the Being who is beyond and within all being. The two additional descriptions, "The one who was and the coming one", give a dimension of time. If "the one who is" invites us to think of the here and now and to contemplate the spatial dimensions, the terms, "the one who was" and "the one who is to come", evoke a sense of time and timelessness: in the beginning - and in the end: God; and in the midst of life: God. This is all embracing, combining a sense of origin with a sense of destiny and at the same time a sense of presence.

Even to stop here would leave us with a rich basis for reflection. What can be more important than to be in a relationship of grace and peace with this one? This is no loyalty drive for a deity, a kind of distraction from everyday living. Its focus is on life itself and the one who is within it and beyond it, before it and its goal. Notice that the threefold designation is not: "who is, who was and who will be", but "who is, who was and who will come". This is a promise of engagement. The reference to coming takes us away from an image of God as aloof and uninvolved. God is not an absent God who was and who will always exist - beyond us and with no interest in us.

The image of seven spirits takes us into the realm of the imagination, as does the image of the throne. This is the language of those who have learned to see greatness in terms of royalty and its grandeur. In such a world people bow, while the honoured sit on thrones, wearing crowns. John enters this world of language and imagination when he seeks to portray the greatness of the God who is and was and will come. Later he will subvert such imagery by depicting a slain lamb as the lion of Judah. But here the image is of a throne surrounded by serving courtiers, depicted as a perfect (sevenfold) group of spirits or angels. It is as though it is not enough simply to speak of God. It is as though God cannot be contained or limited, but has to be thought of as more than our image of a single human person.

The real definition of God which controls John's understanding is the one we find in Jesus. Jesus gives us the shape of God. He is the witness (1:5). The Greek word also came to mean "martyr". Jesus is both witness and martyr. He is "faithful", another way of saying that we can trust what we see, especially what we see about God. This is an affirmation of Christian faith. "Firstborn from the dead": and "ruler of the kings of the earth" draws on Psalm 89:27, according to which God promises to make the king of Israel, his "firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth".

Christians took over this idea and applied it to Jesus, when they celebrated him as Israel's Messiah (= Christ = Anointed King). "Firstborn" belongs to the ancient notion that the king was adopted as God's son. "You are my son; today I have begotten you" were words spoken to a king at his coronation (see Psalm 2). Christians came to interpret the resurrection of Jesus as a coronation in which God appointed Jesus as his son in this sense (see Heb 1:4-6; Rom 1:2-4; Acts 2:36). This is its sense here. The king whom Israel hoped for would be superior to all others, as a firstborn son had preference in handling his father's estate. Christians saw that honour bestowed on Jesus. It fitted all the more neatly because Jesus was the first to be raised from the dead - first "born" from the dead.

The elaborate imagery about Jesus comes from the world of courts and kings, and the rituals which accompanied them. It was a way of saying: God has underlined that this Jesus really was the valid exponent of what God's being and doing, his going and his coming, are about.

Half way through 1:5 we shift gear. Now John exhorts his hearers to offer their praise. This was also a common feature in the beginnings of letters, but here, too, the substance is significant. John's preferred way of speaking of Jesus' achievements was, like Hebrews and Paul, to focus (almost entirely) on his death as a means of dealing with sins. This leaves out a lot, but it preserves a central aspect of the good news: forgiveness of sins. Like the writer of Hebrews, John is very much at home in the world of cultic thought and its presuppositions.

The strong echoes of Old Testament language and ideas continue in 1:6, as John takes up Exodus 19:6, which spoke of Israel as called to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. John sees this coming to fulfilment in a community which brings honour and praise to God. It is an image of worship. We are still within the language of kings and honour, but here it is expanded to include cultic notions. Notice that it does not single out just some Christians to take a priestly role, but sees the whole community as existing to be and do what once only the priests did (but even then, at best, in a way that included the whole community, as Exod 19:6 indicates). The "Amen" at the end of 1:6 may suggest that John sees his letter introduction as forming part of a liturgy which might be performed in a community with responses.

In 1:7 the author continues to draw on Old Testament texts, this time more directly. He cites both Daniel 7:13 and Zech 12:10. The former influenced Christian statements about Jesus as the coming Son of Man. The latter will have influenced the account of Jesus' death in the fourth gospel, which alone refers to a soldier spearing Jesus' body. Perhaps at some stage (and probably still in Revelation) it was a general reference to the Jewish leaders' rejection of Jesus and his crucifixion, rather than to a particular act. Here the focus is on all peoples and their acknowledgement of who Jesus is. Zechariah 12:10 goes on to say that the people will mourn over the pierced one as over a firstborn son. John may have had the allusion to "firstborn" in mind. His careful but complex formulation is really seeking to indicate that all people will eventually come to see who Jesus was and bemoan their rejection of him. Later we shall see that there is a motif of vengeance behind his stance.

In 1:8 we are back with the formulation of 1:4 except for two expansions. The first and last letters of the Greek alphabet indicate that God is all encompassing. The final designation, "ruler of all" (pantocrator), was a favoured designation of God - like "Almighty".

In the beginning: God; in the end: God; in the midst of life: God. These are less statements about time and place as they are statements of hope and trust. That hope and trust are then defined with reference to Jesus. What kind of God is this? The designations were not uncommon in religions of the day and still find their echoes in many religious communities, Christian and otherwise. They are sitting here beside very Jewish ones and particularly beside a quite specific Jewish image of messiahship. They also sit within a frame of honouring which takes kingly courts as models (as did temples). Can we identify with what is happening in this language? Can we re-say it? Does it matter? For John it is the secret of grace and peace for our world

Gospel: Christ the King: 25 November John 18:33-37

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