The Resurrected Child
Charles G. Dennison
In celebrating the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the church invariably stays close to the stories about the empty tomb found in the four gospels, preferably one of the accounts from the synoptics. As we consider the resurrection, however, we do well to be on our guard against such an approach, lest we fail to profit from what the whole of Scripture has to say about the subject.
We are not helped much by the contemporary church in appreciating the extent of the testimony in Scripture to the resurrection, especially that part of the church that takes pride in calling itself "contemporary." This branch of the ecclesiastical world focuses on the resurrection narratives not only because of its predictable seasonal interest, but because it finds those narratives overbrimming with charm, warmth, enthusiasm, even romancejust the sorts of things thought so useful for its seeker-sensitive messages.
After all, the resurrection stories provide such excellent raw material for promoting the contemporary church's vision for ministry. Where else, but in the resurrection stories, do we find better material for positive, uplifting messages about success in the face of overwhelming odds? What other biblical stories offer such a powerful statement about human potential? Jesus, you should know, was the greatest "possibility thinker" of all time. He triumphed over death, we are told, because he kept his mind right and continued, even on the cross, to believe in the possibility of victory. Along these lines, I'm reminded of a message on the resurrection from one of the megachurch moguls; it bore the profane title: "You can't keep a good man down!"
There is, of course, another corner of the contemporary church, the corner that prefers to be known as modern. This portion of the ecclesiastical world also enjoys the resurrection accounts, not because it believes the gospel records or embraces Jesus' bodily resurrection as an historical fact. Rather, modernism is drawn to these tales because they are filled with such poetry, such powerful religious symbolism.
Here is affirmation of the optimism so cherished by modernism. The resurrection story's true value lies beyond even classical liberalism's interest in mythical notions about immortality and in its message about the power and progress of life itself. What use is religion, anyway, if it fails to promote human and world betterment? If it fails to provide an agenda for this year's favorite oppressed minority? If it fails to supply support in those inevitable visits to hospital rooms and funeral homes through comforting words about our contribution, limited as it might be, to Life Almighty? Of course, the modernist church is no less hypocritical here than it is in so many matters about which it so self-righteously puffs and blows, as its wholesale support of the slaughter of the unborn proves.
While there are reasons the contemporary church, whether modernist or evangelical, hangs close to the gospel narratives in considering the resurrection, there are also reasons the book of Revelation is furthest from the place these people want to be at the Easter season. We cannot help but notice a certain irony in this. With all the figurative language in Revelation, what better place for those whose religion is principally preoccupied with image?
Of course, the imagery in Revelation doesn't exactly fit the contemporary church's notion of image or contribute much to its program and goals. For example, the images in Revelation are not the type to mix well with the anthropocentric, subjective, anti-historical attitude, dominating the contemporary church.
History, of course, is very much at the center of Revelationsince Revelation is nothing, if it isn't history. Its imagery reinforces its intention to be a book of history of the most unique sort. Within its pages, we have powerfully presented the comprehensive history of God's people, the church of Jesus Christ, from Christ's first coming to his second. Revelation's images come to us from the exalted God-centered consciousness of the sublime religion at work in the book, as the Lord of history identifies himself with that history and thereby guarantees its certainty. Therefore, he presents himself as " . . . him which is, and which was, and which is to come . . ." (1:4); and "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end . . . which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty" (1:8; cp. 21:6; 22:13).
This historyalways one and the sameis reviewed multiple times throughout the course of Revelation. First, it comes to us from the angle of one like the Son of Man, standing among the seven golden lampstands with words directed to the churches of Asia Minor but intended to speak to the church to the end of the age (chapters 1-3). This one and the same history next is surveyed by concentrating on the Lamb of God, whose breaking of the seals on the mysterious book carries God's full purpose into action and to completion (chapters 4-7). Then, as the shattering blasts from the angels with their trumpets rend the world and the church has her life summed up in the two witnesses of Revelation 11, the identical history is again scrutinized (chapters 8-11). The conflict between the woman with her child and the dragon with his minions opens up yet another angle of vision on the history of the world as it moves toward its conclusion (chapters 12-14). This history is once more recounted in the description of the angels from the heavenly sanctuary who pour out their bowls of wrath (chapters 15, 16), as it is in the movement toward consummate judgment upon this Babylon-of-church-and-world (chapters 17-19). Finally, the church's complete history is pictured with us presently participating in Christ's millennial reign, at the end of which comes the final struggle and life in glory through God's great condescension to his own in love (chapters 20-22)1
Revelation is a history book and the best of Christian interpretation has understood this. And yet, while many have no trouble accepting Revelation's historical character, some have had difficulty admitting its comprehensive sweep. For example, a growing number of people limit the book's chief historical interest to the years leading up to the temple's destruction in A. D. 70. Others say Revelation focuses on the years proximate Christ's return and its aftermath.
However, such approaches truncate the scope of John's visions and prove inadequate in communicating the full sense of the church's participation in what is being described. Set before her is not a portion of her life, however important that portion is thought to be. Much less is Revelation, in the main, about national Israel. Rather, in this conclusive book to the New Testament canon, nothing less than the church's entire life is presented. We may even say, it is being hammered home repeatedly, first with Christ in the church's midst commending, correcting, and warning her, then with her hid in him "safe and secure" in the midst of all this world's alarms, until her final glory comes to light.
Now to be sure, this unique history comes to us in profound imagery. By way of this imagery, the church's history is presented as no mere record of bare facts. Instead, Revelation communicates the church's history overtly in terms of its meaning. Here is another dimension to the contemporary church's avoidance of this book. The synoptic gospels do not explicitly present the
1 Summarized here is the recapitulation approach to Revelation so well presented by William Hendriksen in More Than Conquerors (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1939). Hendriksen's basic interpretation, with variations, is held by many. In an unpublished manuscript, Meredith G. Kline has offered his own refinement, particularly in his interpretation of the later chapters. For a published example of Kline's work on Revelation, with implications for the outline of the book, see "Har Magedon: The End of the Millennium," JETS 39/2 (June 1996): 207-222. I have not had time to research this matter but suspect that G. K. Beale's recently published commentary on Revelation stands close to Kline [The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999)].
meaning of the events they record. Thus, they may become the occasion, in the wrong hands, for a studied avoidance of the true meaning but also everything but the true intention of the text.
With Revelation, however, we are forced to deal with the meaning, since the meaning is directly before us in the imagery that overlays the book. We may arguequite passionately, in factabout the imagery; but such struggles demonstrate we cannot avoid the issue of explicit meaning, if we are to approach Revelation on its own terms.
However, this leaves some in an impossible situation, as you can well imagine. Coming to grips with Revelation's meaning confronts them with images of a startling and even disturbing nature. The last thing the contemporary church wishes to set before its audiences are images of this sort. While they have a place in the Bible, such images have no place in the lighter-than-air messages composed for their mass appeal, free of all negative, frightening, offensive, and supposed non-growth features. Let's face it; John's description of the whore of Babylon is gender insensitive.
For those of us unimpressed by such reasoning, and rightly callous toward the contemporary church's preposterous sensitivities, Revelation is as good a place as any when considering the resurrection. Not that Revelation doesn't leave us more than a little amazed, even more than a little unsettled at what we find. Revelation 12:5, for example, catches us off guard because of the unique light it casts upon the resurrection event. That verse reads this way: "And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne" (KJV).
You may be surprised, at hearing this verse again, that I have connected it to the resurrection. There seems to be mention at its beginning of the incarnation, reference to the birth of God's son as he comes forth from the womb of Mary. At the end of the verse, you hear the word about the ascension into glory, as the child is "caught up unto God, and to his throne." But where, you ask, is the resurrection, the movement of the child from death to life? It seems to you that verse 5 presents a sweeping review of the career of the Messiah, touching his life at its extremities, i. e., at his birth and his ascension.
To be sure, this is a very compelling interpretation, one to which many have quickly leaped. In support, appeal has been made to Genesis 3:15. The figures of Mary and her child Jesus are understood as the fulfillment of the promise made to to Eve concerning a seed who would crushed the serpent's head. How fitting this seems in the context of Revelation 12:5, when mention is made in verse 9 of the great red dragon, who is none other than the serpent of old.
However, as compelling as this interpretation is and as inappropriate as it is in verse 5 to dismiss entirely Christ's actual birth to Mary, certain considerations push us down a different path. To begin with, the woman in Revelation 12 is not Mary. This woman belongs to the prophetic anticipations of texts like Isaiah 66:7-9, a passage in which Zion in the figure of a pregnant woman brings forth a whole new nation in the birth of her child. So conclusive is this birth and so wonderful its joy, it displaces even the birth pangs belonging to it: "As soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children." (v. 8). Pictured in this prophecy is elect Israel, faithful to God, awaiting in travail her anointed king and his eschatological community. Although Mary is a piece of this prophecy, she is not the woman per se.
Secondly, while the birth in Isaiah 66 introduces the child at a point beyond threat to the child, the child of Revelation 12:5 is not beyond threat until he is caught up to God. This means that the travail belonging to this child's birth does not end until he assumes his reign. In the truest of senses, here is his birth and the end of the woman's birth pangs; not the birth to Mary in Bethlehem, but the birth to expectant Israel many years later just outside Jerusalem.
Mary, whose tears began with Jesus' birth, does not end her travail, so to speak, until he is raised. The presence of the women at the resurrection scene, some of them named Mary, serve as poetic conclusion to the nativity, underscoring the fact that Christ is not full-born except in his death and resurrection. Theologically this is to say the nativity lacks all meaning apart from the crucifixion and resurrection. The same message is reinforced effectively in Luke's gospel by the matching of birth clothes and grave clothes (cp. 2:7 and 23:53; 24:12), by stressing the virgin womb and the virgin tomb (cp. 1:27, 34 and 23:53), and by joining the service of Joseph of Galilee to that of Joseph of Arimathea (cp. 1:27, 2:4 and 23:50-53).
However, as important a matter pushing us along this other path in Revelation 12:5 is its citation of Psalm 2:9. We are told the remarkable child is destined "to rule all the nations with a rod of iron", the words "with a rod of iron" being lifted from the second Psalm. Recalling the importance of this Psalm, you cannot help but be struck by its earlier relevant statement in verse 7: "I will declare the decree: The Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee." The interesting thing is, despite Psalm 2's direct reference to the divine begetting of the Son, never once is it applied in the New Testament to Christ's birth to Mary. Rather, Psalm 2 specifically anticipates the Messiah's exaltation. One passage powerfully sets the tone for much of the New Testament's use of the Psalm. I refer to Acts 13:33, where Paul tells those at Antioch of Pisidia, " . . . God hath fulfilled . . . [his promise] . . . , in that he hath raised up Jesus again; as it is also written in the second psalm, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee." According to this text, the birth of the Son is the resurrection.
Thus far in our consideration of Revelation 12:5, we have seen the woman, who is not Mary but the faithful, expectant people of God; the birth with its agony, which is not the birth in Bethlehem but the crucifixion and resurrection event outside Jerusalem; and the significance of Psalm 2:9 in connection with Revelation 12:5, which is not a reference to the nativity but to the resurrection of Christ. Finally, we have the child himself. Actually, the child is the most startling feature of the text. That he is portrayed as a child through all this verse describes may leave us somewhat confused. If, in fact, the birth is the child's exaltation, the extraordinary thing is that he should still be presented to us a child in that context. Had not the child by then become the man?
It is at this point that we are tested concerning our comprehension of Revelation's intention. I have been arguing for Revelation as a unique history, never leaving matters at the level of mere external event. The book pressures us to penetrate the meaning inherent in the event. But how, you ask, does John's vision of Christ as child in resurrected and ascension glory penetrate to the meaning of his exaltation?
The vision's meaning, to say the least, is glorious. Expecting to see the powerful king, the Lord of glory, we see a child. For those of us of the Reformed faith, this vision becomes especially convicting and even disarming, because of John's appeal to Psalm 2. It has been this Psalm, after all, which Reformed pulpits have repeatedly cited through the years to justify the call to lordly governmental activism and even mobilizaiton of armies in the interest of the crown rights of King Jesus.
John's vision, however, presents us with no lordly head of state. Rather, its sets before us a meek and humble child. Not that this child doesn't reign! Indeed, he does. But in the divinely ironic character of the present administration of the kingdom, Christ reigns specifically through his meekness that we, being united to him, might reign in childlike humility with him. He who told us we must become as children (cp. Mt. 18:3), that we must be born again in order to enter the kingdom of heaven (Jn. 3:3) was himself made the child, was himself born again so that he might enter before us and on our behalf. The one who commanded foot-washing, not as ceremony, but as way of life, himself washed feet (Jn. 13:4-17). In contrast to the spirit of gentile ambitions, he continues to reign among us as servant and we must follow him (Mt. 20:20-28).
Nothing less than this introduces us into the meaning of the resurrected child of Revelation 12:5; and I might add, nothing less than this introduces us into the present meaning of Psalm 2 for the church. Neither do I hesitate to say: Revelation 12 exegetes Psalm 2.
The compelling irony witnessed here in Revelation 12 received an earlier endorsement from Revelation 5. In that context, as John wept uncontrollably because no one was found to open the sealed book (v. 4), one of the twenty-four elders consoled him by telling him the Lion of Judah had overcome and was worthy to open the book (v. 5). However when John looked fully expecting to see the lion of Judah, he instead beholds, in the midst of the throne, the four living creatures, and the elders, a Lamb as if slain (v. 6). In other words, in the place of the figure manifesting great glory appears a figure communicating the most magnificent humility. The Lamb of Revelation 5 and the resurrected child of Revelation 12 preach the same message.
Yet, we dare not close this sermon without clearly stating this warning: the one we have seen as the slain Lamb and the resurrected child finally comes with crown and sickle (cp. 14:14); finally appears as the regal warrior, riding his white horse, his eyes aflame, his robe dripping with blood, bearing his name the Word of God, his mouth holding his tempered irresistible sword with which he slays the nations, his rod of iron ruling the peoples, his vesture and his thigh adorned with the inscription, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords (19:11-16).
How unfortunate if the contemporary church is no more prepared to meet such a startling, disturbing figure than it is to live in the lamb-likeness and child-likeness of the Lord Jesus Christ presently. How tragic if the Reformed church, for its own reasons, finds itself equally offended. I trust that is not the case for you.
Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church