08. Revelation’s Revelation: Eat the Scroll
(Revelation 10 -11)
Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven. He was robed in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were like fiery pillars. He was holding a little scroll, which lay open in his hand. He planted his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, and he gave a loud shout like the roar of a lion. When he shouted, the voices of the seven thunders spoke. And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven say, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down.”
Then the angel I had seen standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven. And he swore by him who lives for ever and ever, who created the heavens and all that is in them, the earth and all that is in it, and the sea and all that is in it, and said, “There will be no more delay! But in the days when the seventh angel is about to sound his trumpet, the mystery of God will be accomplished, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.”
Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me once more: “Go, take the scroll that lies open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.”
So I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll. He said to me, “Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but ‘in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.’” I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour. Then I was told, “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages and kings.”
I was given a reed like a measuring rod and was told, “Go and measure the temple of God and the altar, with its worshipers. But exclude the outer court; do not measure it, because it has been given to the Gentiles. They will trample on the holy city for 42 months. And I will appoint my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.” They are “the two olive trees” and the two lampstands, and “they stand before the Lord of the earth.” If anyone tries to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and devours their enemies. This is how anyone who wants to harm them must die. They have power to shut up the heavens so that it will not rain during the time they are prophesying; and they have power to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they want.
Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial. The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.
But after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on.
At that very hour there was a severe earthquake and a tenth of the city collapsed. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the survivors were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.
The second woe has passed; the third woe is coming soon.
The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said:
“The kingdom of the world has become
the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah,
and he will reign for ever and ever.”
And the twenty-four elders, who were seated on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying:
“We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty,
the One who is and who was,
because you have taken your great power
and have begun to reign.
The nations were angry,
and your wrath has come.
The time has come for judging the dead,
and for rewarding your servants the prophets
and your people who revere your name,
both great and small—
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”
Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a severe hailstorm.
We started our last chapter with by reminding ourselves that Revelation tells a story. A story transporting us from prison to paradise. From the Island of Patmos (Rev 1) to the gardens of New Jerusalem (Rev 21-22). It’s a good-news-kind-of-story. John’s vision tells the story of the world’s salvation. The kingdom of God is finally and forever established on earth as it is in heaven. It’s easy to lose sight of the story, especially as exotic details swarm us from seals breaking and trumpets sounding.
We’ve been trying to remind ourselves that this story is not an Almanac giving literal predictions about weather patterns in the future. The story John tells is an Apocalypse revealing what God is like. And, so far, one of the primary “revelations” about God has been that God actually does have a plan to save the world.
We first saw this plan in the form of a sealed scroll (5v1). With all the exotic details swarming us since, it’s easy to forgot about this scroll. We forget about the scroll, even though John had a nervous breakdown in heaven worrying that it would not be opened (5v4). We forget even though every creature in existence (5v13) join the praises of Jesus that he—the Crucified One—alone can open the scroll and make sense of it (5v9). And even though John devoted an chuck of time to building suspense and opening it (6v1 – 8v1), if you’re anything like me, you’ve already forgotten about the scroll.
Perhaps we’re simply not used to reading apocalyptic literature. Perhaps it’s our attention spans. Perhaps we quietly think God or John or the Bible should spoon feed us the deepest mysteries of universe in a more easily-digestible, immediately understandable form. (I’m doubtful that is even possible, but I resentfully want it sometimes.)
It’s easy to lose interest in the slow, patient work of God’s salvation. Disaster movies are often far more interesting. And those are the images that grab our attention in Revelation. Have you seen the special effects—the outrageous fireworks—that go along with the seven seals (6v1 – 8v1) and seven trumpets (8v6 – 11v15)? Who cares about a boring old scroll back there?
The boring old details, however, often hold the key to unlocking the trickiest mysteries in a story. Just ask Sherlock Holmes. When a detail quietly returns, that probably important… perhaps critical.
Through the images of six blasting trumpets, John has been assuring us that God actually is answering the prayers of his people (8v3-6f). God’s answers are sometimes painful and often surprising, but God is answering. His earliest listeners would have been on pins-and-needles for the seventh trumpet—for the final answer—especially after the holding pattern imposed on us by the seventh seal (8v1). Surely the seventh trumpet will herald the salvation of the world.
John is a master-storyteller who knows what his listeners are clamoring for… and he keeps building the suspense. The great brass blast of the seventh trumpet doesn’t arrive for almost two more chapters (11v15). Between the sixth and seventh trumpets, we watch the return of heaven’s scroll—now unsealed. We would be wise to listen to Mr. Holmes; the boring, old details are often critical.
A towering angel arrives from heaven carrying that very scroll1 (10v1-3).
After the painful images of the first six trumpets, this angel is a sight for sore eyes. Here we have someone who looks, smells, sounds like heaven—his body robed with cloud, his head perfumed with a rainbow, his face shining, his legs like pillars of fire. When he speaks, his voice sounding like the victorious lion-roar of the Lamb. From head to toe, this figure reminds us of all the love, delight, peace, and energy that animates the world from backstage.
And yet this angel doesn’t stand backstage in heaven. This angel has planted his feet on-stage in this world—one foot on the earth, the other planted on the sea.2 Suddenly we’re filled with hope. This angel arriving has the same effect as suddenly seeing an Allied Tank in the middle of Nazi-occupied territory. Heaven’s Tank arrives conveying strength and authority and hope—more help is surely coming.
In fact, when the angel speaks (10v3), it’s like he’s radioing for air support. “Could you send in the seven thunders?” He roar like a lion, and the squadron of seven thunders answer his call.
But then suddenly HQ calls off the air support. We hear a the authority of heaven issue overriding orders: “That bit from the seven thunders… don’t include what they said. We don’t need them—they’re not part of the story you’re telling’” (10v4).
What is that all about?
Well, we’ve been watching an escalation of judgment—like a steady increase of chemotherapy. We watched painful judgment increase from one-fourth of the earth (6v8) to one-third of the earth (8v7-12, 9v15). All of the pain has been permitted (or even surgically used) for the ultimate purpose of healing. The ultimate aim of heaven is that that people would turn from evil and choose life (9v20-21). In more theological language, every bit of God’s permissive and active will aim serve the purposes of salvation not damnation. God always intends to save not destroy.
But after sixth trumpets, many still refuse to turn from evil. They refuse to be healed, refuse to choose life. This angel seems to think that what is needed is another, stronger dosage of the same drugs. If things kept going in the same way, we would expect another painful cycle of seven… this time affecting one-half of the earth.
But then the seven thunders are silenced—put on mute.
“Don’t write that down. Don’t pass that along to your churches, John, This story is not simply ever increasing judgments of pain and suffering. That’s not the way this story goes. That’s not the message I want the churches to hear.”
The angel takes this silencing of his orders in stride (10v5-7). He remains confident that soon—very soon in fact—God’s mysterious, saving purposes will be accomplished. The final answer will soon be given—the seventh trumpet will soon sound. There will be no more delay. God’s plan to make everything new will finally happen… even without thunderous air support.
Heaven’s battle plan seems to call for a deeper strategy than ever-increasing firepower. The Great Physician calls for a deeper therapy, not higher doses of the same painful medicine. And here we see one of the most important revelations of Revelation:
Heaven’s deeper strategy involves John.
God’s deeper therapy involves us.
The church is at the heart of how Jesus saves.
John has been watching much of this vision unfold from the vantage point of heaven.3 But now he’s being summoned back to the earth:
“It won’t do for you to live with your head in the clouds; go to the place where the mysteries of heaven and earthy everyday life and the oceans of chaos all converge.4 Meet with that angel who has carried the mysterious plan of God into the world. Go there. Take the scroll (10v8)”
And so John takes the scroll.
“Now eat it” (10v9).
Maybe that’s worth a pause. John is told to eat a scroll with writing on both sides of it. That happens to be a wonderful symbolic image borrowed from the prophet Ezekiel.5 When Ezekiel was first being called by God to be speak God’s words to people, Ezekiel had a vision of an incredibly similar scroll which he was told to eat. It’s an ancient image that says:
“The words of God are not to be merely studied, analyzed and agreed with. This scroll isn’t merely for reading. This is a scroll to be ingested. You receive this into yourself. These words are to become part of you. This scroll is for eating.”
That’s how the image God used with Ezekiel and again with John of Patmos. In the midst of hardship, isolation, and his loved ones suffering, John hears God inviting him to take in—to ingest, to eat—the mysterious plans of heaven.
This is a thrilling, climactic moment in John’s story. This is what we’ve been waiting on, what John despaired might never be known, what the world desperately needs. God plan to save has arrived on a silver platter. It’s kind of a big deal. Here at Revelation’s midpoint, God’s plan to save the world will finally be put on dazzling display. And the display comes not by mere intellection. The scroll requires ingestion.
We wait with bated breath. How John will describe the secrets of the universe to us? We’ve all wondered about this scroll, this plan—what is it like?
Now he speaks:
God’s plan is for ultimate good… it tastes sweet…
but it’s also hard medicine… he’s a little nauseated… (10v10).
“Argh!! Tell us more, John! Can you be more specific? We’re halfway through a book called “Revelation” for crying out loud! Can you finally reveal it?! Tell us more about this scroll than the flavor!! How does God save the world?!”
At this point, we’ve got to pay careful attention. What comes next in Revelation is a touch confusing. But if we grasp this moment of eating the scroll, we’re close to grasping all of Revelation.
At first glance, the transition from Revelation 10 to Revelation 11 feels like a complete change of subjects. Seriously look up 10v11 and 11v1.
When you read it, John seems to switches topics and start talking about entirely different things… the tabernacle, olive branches, two witnesses, who knows! (Most of the time we’re nowhere close to understanding what’s going on, so we don’t really care.)
But, in actuality, John has begun to tell us more about the scroll—more about God’s plan to save the world.
Revelation seems a bit confusing, so we can look back at Ezekiel to get a clearer picture of what’s happening. Right after Ezekiel eats the scroll, he immediately began to convey God’s message in every conceivable way. Through visions, through stories, through haircuts—I kid you not.6 Ezekiel eats the scroll and immediately does everything he can to communicate that message. And the pattern holds true with John.
John is told that he’s got to prophesy to the world—to the people God loves and plans to make fully alive—to peoples and nations and languages and kings (10v11). And as chapter 11 begins, that’s exactly what John begins to do. John eats the scroll and immediately does everything he can to communicate that message.
Buckle up!—get ready!—this is exciting!
John is telling us God’s plan to save the world!
But it’s not what what we expected. Not at all.
John begins talking about all kinds:
“The Temple” beings measured (11v1), and “the holy city” being trampled (11v2), and “two witnesses” who put on quite the spectacular show until they get killed (11v3-12). “The beast” from “the Abyss” makes war on them—attacks them, overpowers and kills them. A monster from the primordial, evil blackhole in the ocean kills them—transforming these “two witnesses” into “witnesses unto death” or “martyrs.” (The Greek word for a witness is “martus.”) But then (11v11-12) they get rescued from the impossible—they’re raised from the dead. These martyrs are vindicated as witnesses to something wildly true. It’s a mysterious, strange, wonderful story, these “two witnesses” who cling faithfully to truth even to the point of death.
But notice what happens because of them. It’s a critical detail. The impossible actually happens because of these “two witnesses” and their faithfulness to death:
People repent of their sin (11v13).
People turn from the wickedness.
A symbolically small remnant of people die,
but a vast majority of people survive and find life.7
Rebels are gripped by the beginning of wisdom—by “the fear of the Lord”—and begin giving glory to the God of heaven.
In a short little parable—in the span of 10 verses—John tells us a short story of something achieving what raw power cannot. Think about it. The faithful lives of these “two witnesses” succeed in accomplishing what the plagues of Egypt could not accomplish: people turning from death and choosing life.
This story of the two witnesses seems to be a parable about the Church. God saves the world through Jesus, and the world meets Jesus through the witness of the local church.
It’s an intricate little story—a genius sort of parable. And while space doesn’t allow an exhaustive examination, here’s what’s going on under the hood condensed into one sentence: John eats the scroll like Ezekiel that reinterprets the prophecies of Daniel8 with an image from Zechariah9that remixes the stories of Moses and Elijah10 to describe the Church faithfully following Jesus.
That’s a snapshot of it.
John raids his verbal warehouse and presents a greatest hit remix of prophecies, stories, images and language to communicate the scroll revealed to him:
The local church is at the heart of how God saves.
And so he tells us a story of two witnesses (you need at least two or three witnesses to trust a testimony in the ancient world). These witnesses live and die faithfully proclaiming truth. That’s a stylized thumbnail portrait of the church’s task in history.
For some period of time in history11 the church points the world to Jesus in word and deed. The fire from the witnesses’ mouths is just as symbolic as a sword coming out of Jesus’s mouth.12 He’s not talking about literal fire-breathing any more than a literal monster from a literal abyss. He’s saying the church’s proclamation of Jesus in the world is powerful (11v5). The church’s deeds of love, mercy, truth in the world (11v6) are just as miraculous as Moses or Elijah.13
What changes the world, what saves the world, is the Church faithfully witnessing to the Lamb—to self-giving love—even when it’s hard.
Even when the world despises truth.
Even when hatred and violence
overpower forgiveness and mercy.
The church’s joyful privilege is to faithfully follow Jesus in self-giving love even when it means joining him on the cross. We may get attacked—possibly even killed (11v7)—for witnessing to Love. But that’s what has to happen. That’s the plan. The “temple” (11v1) has got to be handed over to the nations. “The Holy City” (11v2) may have to get trampled to save those from “the Great City” (11v8,13).14
Even when it means our discomfort or embarrassment or shame or literal death, the Church is called to love. We’re called to witness to Jesus. In our word and deed—in all we say and all we do. This love, this truth, this life—it may be popular. It may torments people (11v10) and feels like hot coals on their head.15
But that’s our task—to love Jesus and love them. Love him. Love her. Always. Relentlessly. Fiercely. Courageously. Love them to the point of death—that’s the secret on the scroll. Love to the point of death is God’s plan to save the world. Love is the only thing that truly changes people. We are invited to ingest the life of Jesus for the sake of the world. The inside job of salvation gets into the world by getting into us.
We’re called to share in the sufferings of Christ and also share in Christ’s resurrection.16 That’s the story of the witnesses, and that’s our story. Until the end of history—until the seventh trumpet sounds—the Church participates in Jesus’ love to the point of death… that’s God’s secret plan to save the world.
That’s Revelation’s revelation.
After John eats the scroll and tells this parable of the two witnesses, we hear the eagle’s voice again in our ears. It tell us that now we’re done with the sixth trumpet… only one final answer remains. Two woes have passed; a third is coming (11.14).
Then the seventh trumpet sounds (11v15), but watch carefully! After these witnesses, we get wonder instead of woe. Instead of more pain, we get a party. We hear an army of people singing in celebration about the end of history (11v16-18). That’s because what Christians mean by “the end” is actually only the termination of humanity’s history of hatred. “The end of the world” actually signals the arrival of The Great Beginning. At the final trumpet, God will make good on all of his promises17 and will make all things new.18
God’s kingdom has arrived, and the time has come for the God of goodness to judge the world (11v17-18). It’s time to destroy whatever destroys life. The end of history—is only “a woe” for those who want absolutely nothing to do with real life.
We’re only halfway through Revelation, but it’s like we’ve already arrived at the end of the world.19 Everything else that happens in Revelation could be thought of as an unfolding of—a reflection on—the seventh trumpet. In its coming chapters, Revelation will be circling back and reflecting on God’s purposes (and the church’s role in them) from different angles.
But for us—here at the end of this chapter—before the seventh trumpet sounds—perhaps we need remind ourselves that God’s purposes are meant to be eaten not read, ingested not intellectualized, lived not analyzed.
Like all of us, I frequently struggle with God because I can’t figure out certain parts of life. I feel like a character in a novel—and I want to know the full plot. I want to fully understand every chapter in light of the whole. I want to analyze the novel while I’m living the middle of it. A few chapters back was really dark… what was that about? Why does this painful thread keep popping up again and again? What’s going on in this story?
I want to read my own scroll.
But when I try, there are so many parts that just don’t make sense. I don’t understand how God could sort this out, how there could be any healing, how any of this works. I can’t read the scroll.
And that’s ok. I’m not invited to read the scroll; I’m invited to eat the scroll. I’m invited to participate in God’s purposes even when I don’t fully understand all of those purposes. Even when I don’t know what the next chapter holds (which is always). Even when we can’t figure out the details of our story (which is never). Even when very little makes sense, there is something I can do.
I can feast on love.
That’s what we’re always invited to do.
We’re invited to feast on love—to receive the powerful, self-giving love of Jesus, making it more and more central to our lives. The purposes of God are meant to be eaten, to be embodied, to become part of us.
Feast on cruciform love,
for you are what you eat.
By the free gift of God, we’re always invited to receive and become love to the point of death. The kind of love willing to be suffer instead of causing suffering. That’s willing to speak truth even when us gets you hurt. That seeks the good of others even to the point of pain and death.
Because this kind of love—this the kind of life—is Resurrection Life. It’s True Life. It’s the life of Jesus, and the life of God himself. It the gift heaven eternally holds before us and commands us: “Take and eat.” And it’s the kind of life that extends salvation into the world around us.
But this is not a life that can can be examined from a distance or analyzed from the outside. And it’s can’t always even be understood in the moment. But make no mistake—crazy, relentless, self-giving love to the point of death, that is God’s secret plan to save the world.
And some wonderful morning—I know not when—we’ll sip on coffee together in the New Jerusalem and maybe we’ll understand a little more how the scroll works.
Lord of the Feast of Love, grant that until the Great Beginning, I may eat the scroll. May I receive your crazy, relentless love into my bones and become witness to it. May I eat what I become and your world-saving love, even when the beasts of darkness seems to be winning. May I your love become my love; your death, my death; your resurrection, mine too.
- ichard Bauckham makes the technical, exhaustive, and (for my money) conclusive argument in his massive work The Climax of Prophecy (243-257).
- Interestingly his food is ON the sea, not IN the sea. While this angel doesn’t seem to be Jesus himself, he’s definitely embody Jesus’s strength and authority. The blurring of an angel’s identity with the identity of God occurs frequently in the Old Testament. **Need scripture references to Angel of Yahweh blurring with Yahweh and Jesus walking on water.
- Rev 4.1.
- This angel, rather significantly, bridges heaven, earth, and sea (10.5).
- Ezekiel 2.8 – 3.4.
- That haircut comes in Ezekiel 5.
- “The remarkably universal, positive result of the witnesses’ testimony is underlined by the symbolic arithmetic of 11:13. In the judgments announced by Old Testament prophets a tenth part (Isa 6:13; Amos 5:3) or seven thousand people (1 Kings 19:18) are the faithful remnant who are spared when the judgment wipes out the majority. In a characteristically subtle use of allusion, John reverses this. Only a tenth suffers the judgment, and the ‘remnant’ (hoi loipoi) who are spared are the nine-tenths. Not the faithful minority, but the faithless majority are spared, so that they may come to repentance and faith.” (Bauckham, Theology of Revelation, 87)
- The way John first begins communicating the scroll is something like “inside baseball” for the earliest readers familiar with Daniel 8.11-14 & 12.7. Daniel 8.13 especially seem to play significant roles in this parable, with its concern for the Temple. The “trampling underfoot of the Lord’s people” seems embodied in the images of the temple (Rev 11.1), holy city (Rev 11.2), and the life of the witnesses (Rev 11.3-12). See Bauckham’s The Climax of Prophecy (266-273).
- The images of lampstands and olive trees are from Zechariah 4.11-14 and symbolize the governor (Zerubbabel) and high priest (Joshua) of Zechariah’s own time (4.14). It’s noteworthy that lampstands have already been clearly established as a symbol for the Church in Rev 1.20. Here instead of seven lampstands, we have two to match the symbolism of Zechariah’s olive trees and to dovetail with the symbolic figures of Moses and Elijah.
- The figures of Moses and Elijah became something of an embodiment of Scripture (Moses = the law, Elijah = the prophets), and they also appear as the two closest witnesses to Jesus’s transfiguration (Mk 9.2-13 and parallels).
- The language in these verses of three and a half years, 42 months, 1,260 days are all the same amount of time. They seem to originate from both half of “fullness” (seven) and also Daniel 12.7 (a time = 1, times = 2, half a time = 1/2).
- Rev 1.16; 2.16; 19.15, 21.
- The plagues and waters into blood (v6) are obvious allusions to the work of Moses (Ex 7-11) and prophesying drought to Elijah (1 Kings 17).
The reference to “the Temple” and the “holy city” in verse 1-2 both seem to be symbolic representations of the people of God like the “two witnesses” (cf. Eph 2.21-22, 1 Pet 2.5) rooted in the prophetic images of Daniel 8.13 (see note 3 above). When “the great city” is described (11.8) and collapses (11.13), this seems to be symbolic as well. Egypt and Sodom are explicitly figurative representations of what happened outside the literal city of Jerusalem (“where [the] Lord was crucified”) and of the oppressive power of the literal city of Rome.
So Joseph Mangina: “The great city, then, is neither one particular city (Rome, say) nor all cities in all times and places. It is rather the name we give to all those particular stories in which human beings rise up in opposition to the rule of God, seeking to dispose of God (and safeguard their own autonomy) by murdering his appointed messengers… The narrative does not, however, assign direct responsibility for the witnesses’ death to the inhabitants of the city. The one who does the actual killing is ‘the beast that arises from the bottomless pit.’” (140).
- Rom 12.20-21.
- Phil 3.10-11.
- There are theophatic (“God-revealing) “light shows” that signal literary transitions in Revelation. These light-shows occur initially reveal the presence of God in heaven (4.5), but return three more times in escalating intensity at the end of the seals (8.5), here are the end of the trumpets (11.19), and at the end of the bowls (16.18). It’s symbolically significant that during this “light show,” we catch a glimpse of the ark of the covenant, reminding us that Revelation is God’s climactic follow through on his saving promises to Abraham (Gen 12), Moses (Ex 19), and David (2 Sam 7).
- Rev 21.5.
- The seventh trumpets seems to signal the end of the world and arrival of the future because in verse 17 God is no longer praised as the One “who is to come.” God is simply “the One who is and who was.” The “is to Come” has arrived. The second half of Revelation seems to be further exploring the redemptive task of the church in an oppressive world before this “seventh trumpet” sounds. We might call this seventh trumpet “the bowls of God’s wrath” (Rev 16).