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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Blessings of the Apocalypse

The Blessings of the Apocalypse

Yes, Revelation—the book that tells the story of the end of the world, complete with a seven-headed dragon, falling stars, and human-faced locusts—is full of blessings, seven of them to be exact.

In fact, the first of these seven blessings, or apocalyptic beatitudes, comes at the very beginning of the book—before we get to all that business about beasts, the whore of Babylon, and the battle between the woman and the dragon. Revelation 1:3 directly addresses the person in the pew:


Blessed is the one who reads aloud and blessed are those who listen to this prophetic message and heed what is written in it, for the appointed time is near.

Like the above, each of the seven beatitudes of the apocalypse is an exhortation to the Christian on how to live his life, particularly in light of the dramatic events foretold in the book.

The first beatitude, quoted above, is a call to keep the words of Scripture. What is translated above as ‘heed’ could actually be rendered as guard, observe, or watch over. Elsewhere in the New Testament the Greek word, which is téreó, is often used to describe keeping the commandments of God or Jesus. In the Gospel of John it is sometimes used to refer to the ‘keeping’ of the words of Jesus. In the account of the wedding at Cana, it is applied to the good wine.

To keep the commandments of God is to remember and obey them. To guard something is to maintain a sort of heightened vigilance over it. To keep wine is to protect it from spoiling, to let it mature, and to cherish it by saving it for a special occasion. These are all attitudes we should nurture towards Scripture—in this instance, specifically the beatitudes of Revelation.

Because of the literary structure of Revelation the second and fifth beatitudes are closely associated—both have to do with death and the afterlife. The second beatitude is in Revelation 14:13,

I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” said the Spirit, “let them find rest from their labors, for their works accompany them.”

The second is Revelation 20:6,

Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over these; they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for the thousand years.

While these are styled as blessings their subject matter is sobering. They concern our mortality. But there’s a note of hope and hidden joy in these—and that is that by uniting ourselves with Christ we will finally find ‘rest’ and be spared the ‘second death’ in the afterlife. (The first death is the separation of the soul from the body. The second is the separation of the soul from God.)

The third and fourth beatitudes are also intentionally paired:

“Behold, I am coming like a thief.” Blessed is the one who watches and keeps his clothes ready, so that he may not go naked and people see him exposed (Revelation 16:15).

Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who have been called to the wedding feast of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These words are true; they come from God” (Revelation 19:9).

At first, these above two lines seem completely unrelated. But as one writer explains, the context of the second verse explains the first. The key verses are Revelation 19:7-8,

Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory.

For the wedding day of the Lamb has come,
his bride has made herself ready.
She was allowed to wear
a bright, clean linen garment.”

(The linen represents the righteous deeds of the holy ones.)

We can develop this point a bit further. In Galatians 3:27 the baptized are said to have been ‘clothed’ with Christ. In Romans 13:14 this becomes an injunction—literally, ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ.’ The message then is not just to persevere in faith and good works but to persevere by clinging to Christ.

The sixth beatitude essentially repeats the first: “Blessed is the one who keeps the prophetic message of this book.” (The Greek word for ‘keep’ is the same as well.) A call to remember what has just been said naturally belongs here, at Revelation 22:7, so close to the end of the book.

But this is not the end.

The beatitudes are structured in such a way so that the seventh is climactic. It comes in Revelation 22:14,

Blessed are they who wash their robes so as to have the right to the tree of life and enter the city through its gates.

As one writer puts it, this definitely brings the themes of the book to a climax:

Cleansing, sanctuary access, feasting with God by participating in Christ, dwelling in the garden-city, the authority of victory-rest are themes of completed battle, God-given renewal and eschatological security which emphatically associate with biblical teaching on the sabbath. Fullness of blessing indeed!

The number seven is quite significant. Not only is this number embedded in the structure of Revelation, but it hearkens back to Genesis and the seven days of creation. It is a reminder that despite the fire-and-brimstone motifs for which Revelation is famous, God is not a destroyer, but a creator. Just as Genesis told of the creation of the world, so also Revelation depicts the creation of a new one where those who have kept the Word will have eternal life with God.

This is the great blessing of the Apocalypse.