Reflecting on Revelation for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

From Revelation by Peter S. Williamson commenting on 22:14:

The seventh and last †beatitude makes clear that the call to conversion is truly good news: Blessed are those who wash their robes. A previous vision revealed people before the throne of God who had “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). This blessedness is not the result of a perfect moral record, nor is it available as a result of merely human moral effort. It belongs to those who turn from evil to God and receive cleansing and grace from the sacrifice of Christ through baptism (Acts 22:16; Eph 5:26) and ongoing repentance: “If we walk in the light as he is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of his Son Jesus cleanses us from all sin. . . . If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing” (1 John 1:7, 9). Jesus explains a twofold right that belongs to the blessed as a consequence. First, they have access to the tree of life, eternal life, previously kept back from the human race because of the sin of our first parents (Gen 3:22–24). Second, they enter the new Jerusalem through the gates—they have the right to dwell there as true citizens.

 

© 2015 Peter S. Williamson and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Revelation for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

From Revelation by Peter S. Williamson commenting on 21:1-4:

For many Catholics accustomed to thinking about eternal life in heaven, Revelation’s picture of the new Jerusalem descending to a re-created earth may come as a surprise. However, a close look at the Catechism shows that it devotes one section to “Heaven” (1023–29), and after the section on the “Last Judgment” (1038–41) comes a separate section on “The Hope of the New Heaven and the New Earth” (1042–50).

Summing up the Catechism, heaven is where “those who die in God’s grace and friendship” go to live with Christ immediately after death (or after their purification is complete in Purgatory), before the resurrection of their bodies (1023). They live there in a “communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed” (1024), a reality beyond human understanding. In heaven, God gives human beings the ability to see him in his heavenly †glory, what theologians describe as “the †beatific vision” (1028).

However, turning now to Catechism 1042–48, the ultimate future of God’s people—after the resurrection and the last judgment—is to reign with Christ in a re-created cosmos. Then “the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness. . . . the righteous will reign forever with Christ, glorified in body and soul. The universe itself will be renewed” (1042). “In this new universe, the heavenly Jerusalem, God will have his dwelling among men [cf. Rev 21:5]” (1044). “We know neither the moment of the consummation of the earth and of man, nor the way in which the universe will be transformed” (1048, emphasis original).

So what’s the difference? When the kingdom of God comes in its fullness, God’s people will have new bodies and live on a renewed earth. Nevertheless, there is continuity between heaven now and the new creation in the future age: in both, human beings enjoy the beatific vision; in both, they reign with Christ; in both, they are freed from all suffering and sorrow. If heaven is defined as where God is present and reigns completely, it is clear that when the new heaven and the new earth are created, heaven comes to earth.

For many centuries Christian hope has focused on heaven. In contrast, the hope of the early Christians centered on the return of Christ (Titus 2:13), the resurrection of the dead, and the full establishment of God’s kingdom as expressed in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Without lessening our desire to go to heaven when we die, we Christians would do well to set our hope on the full and final establishment of Christ’s kingdom on earth.

 

© 2015 Peter S. Williamson and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Revelation for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

From Revelation by Peter S. Williamson commenting on 7:15-17:

An end to suffering. The vision in Rev 7:9–17 of the eternal life promised us is extraordinarily comforting. Here is no empty promise that faithful Christians will be spared trial and suffering, a way of thinking that the life of Jesus and all of Christian history contradict. Rather, John foresees a countless multitude passing through the great tribulation of this age before Christ returns and standing victorious before God and the Lamb, wearing white robes, and waving palms in celebration.

This vision offers a partial yet helpful answer to an age-old question: How can a God who is good and all-powerful allow suffering to afflict the just? The vision reveals that all such affliction is time limited. There will be an irreversible end to the suffering of those who belong to God. Those who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood the Lamb”—the Lamb who fully shared in the suffering of this world to the point of being slain—are destined to eternal joy in God’s presence, where there will be no more hunger, thirst, oppressive heat, or any other evil. The Lamb will be their shepherd and quench their thirst with life-giving water. God their Father will heal their wounds and “wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

For all the saints. The Church reads the two visions of this chapter on the Solemnity of All Saints, a feast that celebrates the sanctity of all God’s faithful people who have gone on before us, not just the saints who have been canonized by the Church. The Lord calls every Christian to holiness, in every state of life. Hebrews 12:14 exhorts us, “Strive for . . . that holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” It is a simple fact that only saints—holy people—reach heaven. Christ qualifies us to live in God’s presence: he makes us holy through his death and resurrection, conveying the benefits to us through the sacraments. Nevertheless, we must “strive” to do our part as well through ongoing repentance, prayer, reading Scripture, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Our part entails daily dying to self and surrendering ourselves completely to God. This process must be completed before we see the face of God. Why not begin in earnest now?

 

© 2015 Peter S. Williamson and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Ephesians for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

From Ephesians by Peter S. Williamson, reflecting on Ephesians 5:8-14

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Paul explains why his readers should not be partners in evil—For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. As in chapter 2 and in 4:17–24, Paul recalls the stark contrast between his readers’ past and present conditions. In Paul’s letters, “darkness” usually refers to ignorance and spiritual or moral evil, and “light” refers to true knowledge and spiritual and moral goodness.

The Ephesians previously belonged to the darkness and were under Satan’s rule (2:1–3), the kingdom opposed to God (Col 1:13). But now they have become light “in the Lord” because they are united to Jesus, in whom truth (4:21) and divine life are found.

The fact that they have become light has implications for their conduct: Live as children of light. He repeats the catchword “walk” (NAB: “†live”) for the fourth time. “Children of light” is a †Semitic expression used by Jesus to refer to people who belong to God (Luke 16:8; John 12:36). Paul accents the fruit of their lives: for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth. Children of light manifest the kind of spiritual and moral goodness that everyone recognizes.

To clarify further how his readers should live, Paul adds, Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Other versions catch the nuance of the Greek verb dokimazō better: “Try to discern” (ESV). Paul is encouraging them to reflect on what Jesus wants. Christian moral conduct is not merely spelled out for us in a set of instructions like the law of Moses. Yes, there are basic standards, like the Ten Commandments, the instructions of Eph 4:25–31 and 5:3–5, and the law of love (Rom 13:8–9; Gal 5:14). But in the many situations of life, we must discern what concretely is pleasing to the Lord. Paul does not say it explicitly here, but the indwelling Spirit of Jesus makes this discernment possible (Rom 8:2–14; Gal 5:16–23).

© 2009 Peter S. Williamson and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflection on Revelation on the Fifth Sunday of Easter

The Church takes its second reading on the Sundays of Easter from the book of Revelation in order to meditate on the implications of Jesus’ resurrection for us.  This Fifth Sunday the reading is from John’s vision of the ultimate future for God’s people.  Here is a comment and reflection on Rev 21:1-5a from Peter S. Williamson Revelation (forthcoming, Fall 2014).

In his final series of visions John sees the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy to create a new heaven and a new earth where “the things of the past shall not be remembered or come to mind.  Instead, there shall always be rejoicing and happiness in what I create” (Isa 65:17-18).  The mention of a new Jerusalem is entirely fitting here since the prophecy that promises a new heaven and earth also promises that God will “create Jerusalem to be a joy and its people to be a delight” (Isa 65:18).

John sees this city coming down out of heaven from God to indicate that the city where God’s people will live is not be the result of human effort, but will be God’s doing, God’s provision

It is significant that the heavenly Jerusalem (mentioned in 3:12) descends and is established in all its fullness on a re-created earth.  This text reveals that God’s ultimate plan for the human race is not that we go to heaven, but that heaven, the dwelling of God, descends to a re-created earth.  When the resurrection occurs, besides receiving back real but radically transformed bodies, we will live on a transformed earth.

Most Catholics think that if they remain faithful, their ultimate future will be to spend eternity with God in heaven.  But this is not the teaching of Revelation and not exactly the teaching of the Catholic Church.  A close look at the Catechism shows that it devotes one section to “Heaven” (par. 1023-1029), and, after the section on the “Last Judgment” (par. 1038-41), a separate section to “The Hope of the New Heaven and the New Earth” (par. 1042-50).

Summing up the Catechism, heaven is where the souls of “those who die in God’s grace and friendship” go to live with Christ immediately after death (or after their purification is complete in Purgatory) before the resurrection of their bodies (1023).  There they live in a “communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed” (1024), a reality beyond human understanding. Already, “They reign with Christ.” (1029). In heaven God gives souls the ability to see God in his heavenly glory, what theologians describe as “the beatific vision” (1028).

However, turning now to Catechism 1042-1048, the ultimate future of God’s people, after they have been raised in their glorified bodies and passed through the last judgment, is to reign with Christ in a re-created cosmos. Then “the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness….The righteous will reign forever with Christ, glorified in body and soul.  The universe itself will be renewed” (1042). “Sacred Scripture calls this mysterious renewal, which will transform humanity and the world, “new heavens and a new earth” (1043). “In this new universe, the heavenly Jerusalem, God will have his dwelling among men” (1044).  “For man, this consummation will be the final realization of the unity of the human race, which God willed from creation…. Those who are united with Christ will form the community of the redeemed, “the holy city of God, “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb…. The beatific vision… will be the ever-flowing well-spring of happiness, peace, and mutual communion” (1045). “For the cosmos, Revelation affirms the profound common destiny of the material world and man (1046). The visible universe… is itself destined to be transformed, ‘so that the world itself, restored to its original state… would be at the service of the just,’ sharing their glorification in the risen Jesus Christ” (1047). “‘We know neither the moment of the consummation of the earth and of man, nor the way in which the universe will be transformed’” (1048).

So what’s the difference?  When the kingdom of God comes in its fullness, God’s people will receive their resurrected bodies and live on a renewed earth.

Nevertheless, there is continuity between heaven now and the new creation in the future age.  In both human beings enjoy the beatific vision; in both they reign with Christ, in both they are freed from all suffering and sorrow. If heaven is defined as where God is present and reigns completely, it is clear that when the new heavens and the new earth are created, heaven comes to earth.

Reflection on Revelation on the Fourth Sunday of Easter

The Church takes its second reading on the Sundays of Easter from the book of Revelation in order to meditate on the implications of Jesus’ resurrection for us.  This Fourth Sunday the reading is from John’s vision of the slain Lamb standing before God’s throne in heaven .  Here is a comment and reflection on Rev 7:14b-17 from Peter S. Williamson Revelation (forthcoming, Fall 2014).

One of the elders explains the identity of the countless multitude in white robes before God’s throne. First, these are the people who have survived the time of great distress.    John is seeing a vision of the future and the blessed condition of all the faithful on the other side of the great trials of the present age.

Second, they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. The language is paradoxical.  Whoever heard of making clothes white by washing them in blood? But according to the law of Moses, the blood of certain sacrifices functions as a kind of ritual “detergent” serving to purify people and things (Lev 8:15; Heb 9:13-14, 22). The New Testament teaches that Jesus’ offering of his life on the cross, symbolized by his blood, fulfills the Old Testament purification rites and truly cleanses human beings from sin (1 John 1:7).

Although salvation is entirely God’s gift, human freedom plays a necessary role.  Verse 14 focuses on the action of God’s people: “they have washed their robes and made them white….”  How did human beings cleanse their “robes”—symbolizing the people themselves and their conduct—in Christ’s blood?  They washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb by becoming Christians: by believing in Jesus, repenting of their sins, and being baptized.  Those who have “survived the great distress” persevered in faith, repentance, and the grace of their baptism.

At this point the heavenly interpreter’s explanation breaks into what is plainly poetry, sketching the ultimate future of God’s people in phrases drawn from the Old Testament prophets. The picture has three elements: worship in God’s presence, a complete end to suffering, and the tender care of God and the Lamb for the redeemed.

Their adoration is perpetual, unlike the worship in the Jerusalem temple, which ceased between the evening and morning sacrifice.  The direct access to God and the worship of the redeemed before God’s throne are priestly privileges for which the Lamb’s sacrifice has qualified them (see 1:6 and 5:10).

God’s protection will shelter them from every kind of physical suffering: no hungerthirstthe sun or any heat shall afflict them. Although they may have suffered these evils on earth (see Luke 6:21, 1 Cor 4:11; 2 Cor 11:27; and Rev 16:8-9), now they are forever free of them.  All of this will come to them because of divine intervention on their behalf: For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them. The divine nature of the Lamb is indicated by his place on the throne.  Strikingly, the Lamb is their shepherd, another paradox.

Perhaps the best is saved to last.  God, fulfilling a fatherly role, will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  Not only will all physical suffering be removed, but every emotional and spiritual wound—above all, the sorrow brought by sin and death—will be healed. The image of “the Lord GOD” wiping away “the tears from all faces” comes from Isa 25:8, part of  an ancient prophecy that God “will destroy death forever.”

This vision of the redeemed worshiping at the throne of God and the Lamb after the great trials of the present age shows that all God’s promises of salvation will come to pass as a result of the redemption won for us by Christ on the cross. As St. Paul says, “All the promises of God find their Yes in him.” (2 Cor 1:20, RSV).

Reflection on Revelation on the Third Sunday of Easter

The Church takes its second reading on the Sundays of Easter from the book of Revelation in order to meditate on the implications of Jesus’ resurrection for us.  This Third Sunday the reading is from John’s vision of the slain Lamb standing before God’s throne in heaven receiving worship from all.  Here is a comment on Rev 5:11-14 from Peter S. Williamson Revelation (forthcoming, Fall 2014).

Surrounding the throne and the living creatures and elders John sees countless angels who respond to the “new hymn” of the living creatures and elders with a great shout of acclamation praising the Lamb.  Then John hears every living thing in heaven, on earth, and under the earth—i.e., the whole universe—joining in and acclaiming both God and the Lamb. In response to their praise the four living creatures answer “Amen,” and the elders prostrate themselves. Thus, a wave of praise starts from the angels closest to the throne and rushes outward in all directions. When it reaches the extreme limits of creation, it rolls back again to the center where it is confirmed by those stationed closest to God and the Lamb.

It is precisely because the Lamb has been slain that all the angels acclaim him as Worthy of divine honors.  This acclamation attributes adoration equally “To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb. This is an extraordinary statement to arise from a Jewish monotheist like John, but it is the characteristic claim made about Jesus by the early Church (John 1:1-18; 1 Cor 8:4; Phil 2:9-11; Heb 1:1-3).  This word of praise is all-encompassing and uniquely fitting for God because it is fourfold, symbolizing universality—“blessing and honor, glory and might”—and eternal, “forever and ever.”

The Christian tradition has always understood, as Pope John Paul II said, that “the liturgy we celebrate on earth is a mysterious participation in the heavenly liturgy.” In fact, all genuine Christian prayer is a participation in the worship of heaven.  According to St. Paul, there is in a real way in which we already have been “raised with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly places” (Eph 2:6; Col 3:1-4; see Catechism 1003).  Baptized believers are in communion with heaven and God’s throne because we have been united to Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit.  This is true of our personal prayer, but especially in our prayer with others (Matt 18:20), and above all, when we participate in the Eucharist and re-present to God the sacrifice of his Son.  Of course, the participation in the life of heaven we now enjoy is incomplete and awaits a future fulfillment: “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face” (1 Cor 13:12).   As the Catechism says, “In the earthly liturgy we share in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims…” (1090).

© 2013 Peter S. Williamson and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Revelation on the Second Sunday of Easter

 The Church takes its second reading on the Sundays of Easter from the book of Revelation in order to meditate on the implications of Jesus’ resurrection for us.  This Sunday the reading is John’s vision of Jesus at the outset of the book.  Here is a comment and reflection on Rev 1:17-18 from Peter S. Williamson Revelation (forthcoming, Fall 2014).

This figure who is “like a son of man” touches John, commands him not to be afraid, and then gives him a powerful reason not to fear by disclosing his identity in solemn words: I am the first and the last. He uses words that God uses to identify himself three times in Isaiah (Isa 41:4; 44:6; 48:12). The next sentence makes his identity explicit: Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever. Jesus has come back from the dead with divine authority and will never die again. The good news for us is that he has wrested control from humankind’s perennial enemy: I hold the keys to death and the netherworld (literally, “Hades,” the Greek word for the place of the dead that the Jews called “Sheol”). Jesus holds the keys! The Greco-Roman world knew itself to be ignorant and powerless in the face of death, hoping only for some shadowy continuing existence in Hades. Although Death and Hades will continue to wreak havoc in Revelation until their final judgment at the end of history (20:14), their fate is already sealed in this magnificent declaration of the Risen Lord.

I was dead, but now I am alive forever. The joy and hope these words recall a scene from the conclusion of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Frodo’s friend Samwise wakes after falling unconscious when the Ring was destroyed and sees someone he thought had died months earlier: “Gandalf, you’re alive! I thought you were dead! I thought I was dead! Is everything sad going to come untrue?”

The message of Revelation, foreshadowed in these opening words of Jesus, is a definitive “Yes! Everything sad is going to come untrue!” A revelation of the Risen Lord, an inner understanding of just who this Jesus is, will enable Christians also to face whatever challenges and circumstances come their way.

Revelation provides its readers with three diverse visions of Jesus—the glorious son of man (1:13), the slaughtered Lamb (5:6), and the Divine Warrior (19:11)—each emphasizing different aspects of his person and work. As we study, meditate, and pray about Revelation we also will become more deeply aware of the awesomeness of Christ.

© 2013 Peter S. Williamson and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Ephesians for the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

From Ephesians by Peter S. Williamson, reflecting on Ephesians 3:4-6

Gentiles welcome. To Christians of the twenty-first century, most of whom are Gentiles, it is hard to grasp the significance of this “mystery.” It seems old news that Gentiles can belong to the people of God. But for the nineteen centuries between the time of Abraham and the time of Christ, only the Jewish people had been the heirs of God’s promises, and these promises distinguished them from all the other peoples of the earth (Deut 7:6–7). It might be possible to think that this is simply Jewish chauvinism on Paul’s part, but that would be mistaken. Jesus himself, when the Canaanite woman sought deliverance for her daughter from a demon, confirms that the Gentiles did not have an equal claim to God’s provision that had been promised to the children of Israel (Matt 15:22–28).

Beginning with the death and resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, however, a new age has dawned in which all the peoples of the earth are invited to share in the blessings previously promised to one particular nation. This is the “mystery,” the secret plan of God, that has now been revealed. God always loved and took concern for all peoples of the world (Jon 4:10–11; Acts 14:16–17) and intended from the beginning to bless all nations through Abraham and his descendants (Gen 12:3; 18:18; Gal 3:8–9). Although the prophets spoke on many occasions of God’s future blessings for the nations (e.g., Isa 49:6; 66:18–20), Israel never imagined this would involve making the Gentiles “coheirs,” and “copartners in the promise,” joining them “in the same body.” Israel was chosen, as we Christians have now been chosen, to bring God’s blessing to others. Christians do this by proclaiming the gospel.

The basis of church teaching. Catholic doctrine rests on the apostles’ testimony to what Christ did and taught and what the Holy Spirit revealed to them after Jesus’ death and resurrection, including an understanding of the Old Testament in light of Christ (Dei Verbum 8–9). The apostles’ teaching has been handed on to us in Scripture and Tradition that together “form one sacred deposit of the word of God, entrusted to the Church” (Dei Verbum 10), authoritatively interpreted by the apostles’ successors, the pope and bishops.

© 2009 Peter S. Williamson and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Ephesians for the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

From Ephesians by Peter S. Williamson, reflecting on Ephesians 5:32:

Marriage, a sacrament. Although the New Testament teaches about marriage in a variety of places, Eph 5:32 is the primary basis of the Church’s recognition of Christian marriage as a sacrament. Sacraments are “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (Catechism 1131). How then is marriage “efficacious” and how does it dispense divine life?

Before the coming of Christ, God’s purpose for marriage was often thwarted due to the hardness in human hearts (Mark 10:5), and for this reason the law of Moses permitted divorce (Deut 24:1). The good news is that in the New Covenant through the gift of the Spirit, Jesus removes our “stony hearts” (Ezek 36:25–27) and makes us capable of fulfilling God’s will (Rom 8:4), including lifelong marriage. “By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, [Jesus] himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God” (Catechism 1615).

How is this accomplished? When a woman and a man give their consent before the Church, when the Holy Spirit is invoked on the couple through prayers and blessings, “the spouses receive the Holy Spirit as the communion of love of Christ and the Church. The Holy Spirit is the seal of their covenant, the ever-available source of their love and the strength to renew their fidelity” (Catechism 1624, citing Eph 5:32). In other words, the husband and wife become participants in the love between Christ and the Church—they become capable in a new way of drawing on that powerful divine love that surpasses human strength.

© 2009 Peter S. Williamson and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.