Tuesday, July 2, 2013

G. B. Caird on the Seal Judgments of the Apocalypse and Jesus' Kingly Rule

George Bradford Caird (1917-1984), at the time of his death Dean Ireland's Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford, was one of a handful of British New Testament scholars who had a profound influence on my development as a student of the New Testament during my seminary days. He was the original doctor father of my friend and teacher Buist Fanning and, more famously, of N. T. Wright, who has perpetuated many of Caird's ideas—for example, the function of apocalyptic language—in his own voluminous writings. Caird himself is most famous for his magisterial The Language and Imagery of the Bible, his posthumously-published New Testament Theology (edited by the late Lincoln Hurst), and his short yet profound commentary, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, in the Harper's New Testament Commentary series.

While reading his commentary on Revelation 5-6 this afternoon I was struck once again by both his perspicacity and the lucidity of his writing. In Revelation 5 John describes his vision of the throne room of heaven, with God holding in his hand a seven-sealed scroll.  This scroll, as Caird rightly notes, "contains the world's destiny, foreordained by the gracious purpose of God" (Revelation, 72). As it happens, the only one found worthy to open the seals was "the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David" (5:5), whom John sees as "a Lamb standing (!) as though it had been slaughtered" (5:6). The worthiness of Jesus Messiah to open the scroll is said to be due to the fact that he had "conquered" (5:5). Angelic figures (the four living creatures and the twenty-four "elders") elaborate: "Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth" (Rev 5:9-10).  So far, so good. The "new song" of Revelation 5 is one of the high points of the Apocalypse, and is intended literarily to provide the essential presuppositional background to the events revealed pictorially in the remainder of the work. But, as the scene shifts from the divine throne room to the affairs of earth, the opening of the seals is attended with judgment, not immediate blessing. If indeed the Book of Revelation narrates how God is going about fulfilling his redemptive designs for his creation, how do the judgments enumerated in chapter 6 and elsewhere fit into that scenario? Caird's remarks are lucid and profound. I leave you with them, without my own long-winded commentary, for your reflection:

This brings us to the crux of the passage, which is also the crux of the interpretation of the whole book. At a first reading the account of the breaking of the seals leaves us with a sense of anticlimax. The choirs of heaven have sung their new song to acclaim the new act of God and to prepare us for the new revelation we can expect when the seals of the scroll are broken. Then on to the stage of history come only four horsemen representing disasters as old as the human race. Is this all that we are to receive from the regnant Christ? Has he after all nothing new to disclose, nothing new to achieve? Indeed, we may be pardoned for asking whether the Lamb who lets such horrors loose on the world is really the same person as the Jesus of the gospel story. But John has already given us the answer to all such doubts. It was by his death at Calvary that Jesus 'won the right to open the scroll' (v.5). In the scroll is God's purpose for the world, but it cannot be put into operation, let loose into the world, except by a human agent who has won the right to do this. In other words, Christ's whole kingly power, his ability to control world history, has its source in the Cross. If we would ask in what sense the four horsemen represent the eternal purpose of God, we must first ask in what sense the Cross represents that purpose.
From one point of view the Cross was simply the product of the variegated turpitude of men: the bigotry of fanatics, the opportunism of corrupt priests, the moral astigmatism of lying witnesses, the vindictiveness of a nationalist mob demanding that an innocent man suffer the death penalty for a crime precisely because he had refused to commit it for them, the vacillation of a governor yielding against his judgment to popular frenzy, the treachery of one disciple, the denial of another, the cowardice of the rest, the taunts of callous bystanders. But because Jesus was content to accept the role of the Lamb assigned to him by his Father, he was able to transform all this into the signal triumph of divine love. He did not merely defeat the powers of evil; he made them agents of his own victory.
That is why John tells us that Jesus 'has won the right to open the scroll', and why the scroll, once open, lets loose uon the earth a series of disasters. He is not asking us to believe that war, rebellion, famine, and disease are the deliberate creation of Christ, or that, except in an indirect way, they are what God wills for the men and women he has made. They are the result of human sin ... The point is that, just where sin and its effects are most in evidence, the kingship of  the Crucified is to be seen, turning human wickedness to the service of God's purpose. The heavenly voice which says, 'Come!' is not calling disasters into existence. They are to be found in any case, wherever there are cruelty, selfishness, ambition, lust, greed, fear, and pride. Rather the voice is declaring that nothing can now happen, not even the most fearsome evidence of man's disobedience and its nemesis, which cannot be woven into the pattern of God's gracious purpose. Because Christ reigns from the Cross, even when the four horsemen ride out on their destructive missions, they do so as emissaries of his redemptive love. In what way they can serve the purposes of the Lamb remains to be seen. For the moment all we are told is that the content of the scroll is God's redemptive plan, by which he brings good out of evil and makes everything on earth subservient to his sovereignty.

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