Ted Grimsrud—February 19, 2014
Revelation 9 concluded with a picture of “the rest of humankind” continuing to worship their idols even in the face of the terrible plagues that had killed “a third of humankind” (9:18). “They did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their fornication or their thefts” (9:21). It could be that the point of this image is to underscore just how stupidly stubborn these humans are, that God—in the plagues—had tried to get them to change their ways and they continued to refuse. However, it is much more likely that a different idea is being conveyed here.
We should understand the plagues not as directly sent and controlled by God but more as a way of describing the on-going traumas of fallen human existence in history. The plagues picture something that actually (we will learn beginning in chapter 11) has its direct source in the machinations of the Dragon but that nevertheless does not defeat (and even providentially furthers) God’s purposes. Hence, we may recognize that the point here is that the plagues could not hope to bring about repentance and the turning from idols. Indeed, though this is not an explicit point the visions are making, we can understand that the plagues tend to exacerbate the problem of humanity trusting in idols.
People trust in idols, and as a consequence are pushed by the idols toward “murders, sorceries, fornication, and thefts” (9:21), because they are insecure and traumatized, fearful and in pain. So if God wants to reverse this dynamic, it would make much more sense for God to take a different tack. And this different tack, already described back in Revelation 5 (the hermeneutical key for the entire book), will be detailed beginning in chapter 10.
John sees “another mighty angel coming down from heaven” (10:1). At first it appears that this angel appears in order to unleash another set of plagues, this time a plague of “thunders”—that is, more of the same. But the story actual turns in a different direction.
First we should look at the imagery that is used to describe this “mighty angel.” It has a “rainbow over his head” (10:1). This evokes the picture of the one on the throne back in 4:3. As well, it evokes the rainbow of Genesis 9, which there symbolizes God’s unstrung bow that indicates that God will no longer center God’s response to human brokenness around violent warfare but instead around persevering love. So, this “mighty angel” will not be an agent of punitive judgment.
And the “mighty angel” has a “face like the sun” and legs “like pillars of fire” (10:1). The “face like the sun” is a direct allusion back to the vision of Jesus in chapter 1 (“his face was like the sun shining with full force,” 1:16). The “legs like pillars of fire” evoke some other imagery from the picture of Jesus in chapter 1: “his feet were like burnished bronze” (cf. also 2:18). This “mighty angel” is a liberator or savior more than a punishing judge.
Then, to deepen the sense of connection between the mighty angel and Jesus, we are told that the angel “held a little scroll in his hand” (10:2). We can’t be certain about the connections here. Is the angel Jesus himself? Perhaps, though perhaps it is more likely that we are simply meant to see a close connection between this messenger and Jesus. The scroll, though here it is “little” whereas the scroll given to Jesus in chapter five is not described by its size, surely relates to the message and purpose of Revelation—the fulfillment of human history in the New Jerusalem. If it’s not the same exact scroll that the Lamb is given in chapter five, it could be seen as the same kind of scroll with the same kind of content.
Then comes an extraordinary event. The angel shouts (“like a lion roaring,” evoking the chapter five image of Jesus as the “lion of the tribe of Judah” [5:5]) and “the seven thunders sounded.” It appears that we are going to have another series of plagu our purpose es, and John prepares to record them. But then “a voice from heaven” orders the message of the seven thunders to be “sealed up” and not written down (10:4). This process of one set of plagues leading to another even more intense one and then apparently leading to another is interrupted.
Though we are not told explicitly why the thunder plagues were not recorded, from the development of the plot here and in the next couple of chapters, it could that part of the point, at least, is that this is a subtle way of telling the reader that God’s work in the world is not about the plagues. And that God recognizes that the dynamics of healing do not follow logic of punishment and threatened punishment leading to repentance. What will follow in chapter eleven—and will actually succeed in fostering repentance—is another version of the pattern of Jesus. So, the thunder plagues are ignored as a way of letting us know that God’s work in the world is not about plagues as a response to human sin but rather persevering love and self-sacrificial love.
The angel then swears allegiance to the one “who lives forever and ever” (i.e., the One on the throne), the creator of what is. The angel’s words, “There will be no more delay, but in the days when the seventh angel is to blow his trumpet, the mystery of God will be fulfilled”—the mystery and fulfillment that God had announced to the prophets (10:6-7).
Do we know what this “mystery” is and what is meant by “fulfilled” here? In light of the entire book of Revelation, plus given what follows immediately in the rest of chapter ten and then in chapter eleven, I suggest something a bit different than is commonly assumed. The “mystery” is the pattern of Jesus, especially insofar as his pattern of persevering love is the means to conquer. Such a path is indeed, in Paul’s words, “foolishness to the Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). In a world shaped by the Beast’s ideology of domination, it is indeed a “mystery” how persevering love can conquer.
Surely the sense of “fulfillment” here and throughout Revelation has the outcome of the New Jerusalem as the completion of the purpose of humanity on earth in mind. But what is the practical meaning of such an affirmation. Not “pie in the sky by and by” at all, but to acclaim that the pattern of Jesus is our purpose right now. This is Revelation’s call: Know that your purpose is to follow Jesus in the midst of empire and the Beast and Dragon and their minions. The words that follow will confirm this emphasis.
The same voice that told John to “seal up” the story of the thunders speaks to John again, telling him to take the scroll from the mighty angel and eat it. That John can eat the scroll shows that this is not precisely the same scroll as the one in chapter five. However, the message to John about the scroll indicates that it is actually of a type with the Lamb’s scroll.
John eats it and experiences it as bitter and sweet at the same time (10:10). This enigmatic experience might indicate that the message of the fulfillment of the purposes of human life is a mixture of sorrow and joy. The very plagues that wreak so much havoc and mark human history during this 3 1/2 years we are in the midst of are also occasions for celebration and the experience of God’s healing love. The completion in the New Jerusalem does not negate the pain and suffering in getting there.
John taking and eating the scroll evokes the story of Ezekiel, who had a similar experience (Ezek 2:8–3:3) that marked his initiation into his prophetic ministry. John has obviously already been prophesying. But in being told to eat the scroll here, he is being reminded of his vocation in testifying to the way of the Lamb. As well, John eats the scroll in the same scene as the sealing of the thunder plagues following right after the vision of the failure of “the rest of humankind” to repent in face of the plagues. The presence of the “mighty angel” who evokes Jesus here also is part of the change of direction that this overall vision in chapter ten presents.
John “must prophesy again about many peoples and nations and languages and kings” (10:11). But this time, as we will see in chapter eleven, the emphasis will be on the actions of God and the Lamb and their followers that actually will evoke repentance. And the phrase “peoples and nations and languages and kings” echoes the language that describes those who worship the Lamb in 5:9 (“from every tribe and language and people and language”) and 7:9 (“from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages”).
What is added in 10:11 is the reference to “kings.” However, as we will learn by the end of the book, even the “kings of the earth” will enter the New Jerusalem. So this new focus on prophesying John is given is ultimately prophesying healing and salvation for “a great multitude that no one could count” (7:9).