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Famous Last Words
The most famous last words spoken or written are the last book of the Bible, the Revelation. No others come close in the competition. But "most famous" does not mean "most admired" or "best understood." Many, confused by the bloody dragons and dooms-day noise, are only bewildered. Others, associating them with frequently encountered vulgarities and inanities, hold them in contempt.
Still, there have always been some who stopped to look and read out of curiosity, but who stayed to understand and admire because they discovered here rich, convincingly presented truth. I am among these people. The words, for us, are famous not because they are sensationally bizarre or teasingly enigmatic. They are famous because they are so satisfyingly true, backed up by centuries of mature experience and testedusage. The last words of the Revelation are famous because they memorably summarize and conclude centuries of biblical insight, counsel, and experience in the persons to whom God chose to reveal himself, and who in their turn chose to live by faith in God.
The power of the Revelation to attract attention, and then, for those who attend, to make the reality of God and the life of faith coherent, develops out of a striking convergence of the ministries of theologian, poet, and pastor in the person of its author, St. John.The three ministries are braided into a distinguished plait in his introductory words: "I John, your brother, who share with you in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, 'Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches'. Then I turned to see the voice" (Rev. 1:9-12).
St. John was on Patmos, a prison island, "on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus." The word (logos) of God (theos) put him where he was; it also made him who he was. He did not identify himself by his circumstances as a prisoner but by his vocation as a theologian. He did not analyze Roman politics in order to account for his predicament, but exercised his intelligence on the word and testimony of God and Jesus: the task of the theologian.
The word and witness that shaped his life were then written down by command and under inspiration. "In the Spirit," he was commanded, "Write what you see." The result is a book that recreates in us, his readers, that which he himself experienced: it is the work of a poet.
He did this in a conscious, double companionship with the Christians and the Christ whom he knew "your brother, who shares with you in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance." He shared everything the difficulties, the glorious blessings, the day-by-day discipleship: this is the life of a pastor.
A theologian takes God seriously as subject and not as object, and makes it a life's work to think and talk of God in order to develop knowledge and understanding of God in his being and work. A poet takes words seriously as images that connect the visible and invisible, and becomes custodian of their skillful and accurate usage. A pastor takes actual persons seriously as children of God and faithfully listens to and speaks with them in the conviction that their life of faith in God is the centrality to which all else is peripheral. The three ministries do not always converge in a single person when they do the results are impressive. Because St. John so thoroughly integrated the work of theologian, poet, and pastor, we have this brilliantly conceived and endlessly useful document, the Revelation.
St. John, the theologian
A fourth century scribe, set the task of copying the Revelation,wrote the title, 'A Revelation of John;' and then, in a moment of inspired doodling, scribbled in the margin, tou theologou, "the theologian" The next copyist, struck with their appropriateness, moved the two words from the margin onto the center of the page. It has been St. John the Theologian ever since (Authorized Version translation, "John the Divine").
St. John is a theologian whose entire mind is saturated with thoughts of God, his whole being staggered by a vision of God. The world-making, salvation-shaping word of God is heard and pondered and expressed. He is God-intoxicated, God-possessed, God-articulate. He insists that God is more than a blur of longing, and other than a monosyllabic curse (or blessing), but capable of logos, that is, of intelligent discourse. John is full of exclamations in relation to God, quite overwhelmed with the experience of God, but through it all there is logos: God revealed is God known. He is not so completely known that he can be predicted. He is not known so thoroughly that there is no more to be known, so that we can go on now to the next subject. Still, he is known and not unknown, rational and not irrational, orderly and not disorderly, hierarchical and not anarchic.Reversed Thunder copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All Rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.