Mustērion


12. MYSTERY COMPLETED.

Revelation 10.7.

'chronos'

‘Musterion’ occurs 28 times in the NT, and we have now looked at 27 of them. The final instance is found, appropriately enough, in the last book of the bible, the Book of Revelation. This is not, however, the last mention of the word in Revelation, for it is used twice more later on in the book (chapter 17, vv.5,7), instances that we have already looked at. The passage we are now concerned with is in chapter 10, and the key verse is verse 7. Using the AV, and starting from verse 5, the passage reads as follows: “And the angel which I saw --- lifted up his hand to heaven [6] and swore by him that liveth for ever and ever --- that there should be time no longer: [7] but in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound [his trumpet], the mystery of God should be finished, as he hath declared to his servants the prophets.” I have chosen the AV here because both the NEB and the NIV translate verse 6b: “there would be no more delay”, rather than “no more time”. The Greek word used here is ‘chronos’, whence ‘chronology’, etc.; it occurs 54 times in the NT, and this is the seventh and last occurrence where it is used in the nominative case as the subject of its sentence (yes, another 7!). In none of the other 53 instances can ‘chronos’ be translated ‘delay’, though, of course, in this context ‘delay’ makes good sense. I believe, however, that much more is lost than is gained by this version - which is, in effect, an interpretation rather than a translation. There are two reasons for my preference for ‘time’ here, the second of which will come later. But the first is based on the essence of ‘mystery’, with which we should, by now, be familiar. We have seen repeatedly throughout this long study that the biggest mystery of all, and an essential ingredient in all mystery, is the future. God alone knows the future, and God alone has planned the future, in broad outline, at least, if not in the minutiae of day-to-day life; the interplay of divine sovereignty, human free will and Satanic intervention is another impenetrable mystery, which I delegate to greater minds than mine to pronounce upon. But ‘mystery’, as used in scripture, refers to a truth that God has part-revealed in the past, but which will only be fully revealed in the future. In some cases that future has already come: praise God! the mystery of the gospel has already been gloriously revealed in Christ. But the second coming of Christ, the last days and the Day of Judgement are mysteries still. It is only when, “at the last trumpet” (1 Cor. 15.52) time dissolves into eternity that “the mystery of God will be completed”. It is this link between verses 6 and 7 that makes the (literal) translation “time will be no more” so attractive. The reference to 1 Corinthians provides us with an interesting parallel. We spent quite a long time looking at this chapter when studying ‘the mystery of the resurrection body’. Paul, too, must have had some of the secrets of the end-times revealed to him by the Holy Spirit, though his revelation is likely to have been more directly verbal and less visual than John’s, in accordance with their respective mind-sets. Presumably for Paul “the last trumpet” meant ‘the trumpet that signalled the end of the age’, rather than ‘the last trumpet of seven’. But he, too, teaches that time will dissolve into eternity “in the twinkling of an eye”, “in an atom of time”, and that “mortality will put on immortality” in the fastest quick-change act in history - grubby jeans and sweaty T-shirt exchanged for Sunday best ! (vv. 52-3). But however graphic Paul’s imagery and John’s visions may be, trapped as we are in our 4-dimensional world, as if by the four walls of a prison, we cannot begin to imagine what role ‘time’ will play in eternity and immortality. The idea that “time will be no more” is way beyond our comprehension, and this, perhaps, is why modern translators have opted for “there will be no more delay” - the familiar tones of a harassed teacher herding the children back into their classroom after play-time, rather than the awesome words of a mighty angel swearing a mighty oath by the almighty God.

In order to understand more fully the contents of “the mystery of God” which will be “completed” at the end of time, we need to look more widely at the context of our key verse. This will reveal, as is so often the case in Revelation, that several passages of OT prophecy stand behind our passage, and shed their light upon it. This in turn will lead to our final three word-studies, which will both restate in different terms our basic theme of ‘mystery - revelation - knowledge’ and develop it a stage further, and so redress an imbalance in our treatment so far of ‘the mystery of God’. We have lingered long on ‘the mystery of the gospel’, the good news of God’s amazing grace in Christ, but have hurried over the complementary truth of God’s awesome holiness, and his righteous anger at those who reject his grace . We have, in fact, said little about a grim reality of which scripture says much: the reality of judgement.

Deuteronomy 32.40 and Daniel 12.7

The chapter begins: “I saw another mighty angel descending from heaven”; the description of this angel which follows is reminiscent in some respects of the description of the risen Christ in chapter 1, and this has led some to suppose that this is, indeed, Jesus himself. I do not think so. The “other” refers back to the first “mighty angel” in 5.2, who “proclaimed in a great voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the book and undo its seals?’” Since this angel is clearly not Christ, neither is his successor, the “other”. Furthermore, it seems inconsistent with the risen and glorified figure of Jesus portrayed in the rest of Revelation to describe him as an ‘angel’, God’s messenger; and still less consistent to represent him as “swearing by the one who lives for ever” (10.6). This “mighty angel” holds in his hand “an open book” (two of the three words we will shortly be studying), evidently the same book, or, at least, part of the same book, that is described in chapter 5 and progressively unsealed (‘seal’ will be our third word-study) by Christ, the only one found worthy for this task, in chapter 6 and at the start of chapter 8. Presumably the angel was holding the book in his left hand, for he then raises his right hand to heaven (he is now on earth) to swear his oath. This detail links him to two OT oaths, Deuteronomy 32.40 and Daniel 12.7. It is worth noting at this point that the UBS Greek text prints all direct quotations from the OT in bold type, but that there is no bold type at all in Revelation, despite the fact that the book is full of OT language and imagery. So here, where the Greek text indents the relevant lines, John is not deliberately quoting from these two OT verses, but rather their imagery is echoed in his vision. A literal translation of the three passages concerned should make the point. The indented lines from Revelation 10. 5-6 (the indentation is more helpful than the verse division) read as follows: “He raised his right hand to heaven, and swore by the one who lives for ever and ever” - more literal still, “to the ages of the ages”. The LXX version of Deuteronomy 32. 40, part of ‘the Song of Moses’, a prophecy dictated to him by God himself, reads: “I will lift my hand to heaven, and I will swear by my right hand, and I will say, ‘I will live for ever’” (or “to the age”). The Daniel text comes at the end of his prophecy, given to him by a majestic angel, whom many believe to have been the pre-incarnate Christ, despite the fact that “the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me for 21 days”, and that he needed the help of the archangel Michael to overcome him. Chapter 12 begins with a prophecy of the last days, “a time of distress” unparalleled, leading to the resurrection of the dead, “some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt”. The “man dressed in linen” is then asked by another angel: “How long will it be before these astonishing things are fulfilled?” (NIV) Then comes ‘our’ verse: “He raised his right hand and his left hand to heaven, and swore by the one who lives for ever (“to the age”) that it would be for a time of times and half a time” - or “for a time, times, and half a time” (NIV).

The first point to make here is to note the distinction between the words of God himself, speaking through Moses, “I live for ever”, and the other two speakers, who swear “by the one who lives for ever”. This seems to me to make it clear that neither “the man dressed in linen” in Daniel nor “the mighty angel” in Revelation is Christ himself. The second point to make is my second reason for preferring the more literal translation of the mighty angel’s words: “there will be no more time”. Since this passage is so clearly echoing Daniel 12 (we will look at more echoes in a moment), it seems natural to see in this statement a reference to “a time, times and half a time”. We do not need (mercifully!) to get entangled in a discussion of the exact meaning of this phrase, still less of the periods of “1290” and “1335” days that are mentioned at the conclusion of the chapter - that way madness lies! The word for “time” here in the LXX is ‘kairos’, which, as we have seen elsewhere, refers to a set point in time, or a season. These ‘times’ refer to God’s prophetic timetable, and, by definition, one cannot base upon them an exact ‘chrono-logy’. My one contribution to such a discussion would be the tentative suggestion that the ‘3 ½ times’ of Daniel’s prophecy imply that the first 3½ times of God’s timetable have already elapsed, or occurred, by his day, so that Daniel stands at the mid-point of prophetic history, just as John stands (in his vision) at its ending. In any event, by the time the ‘last trumpet’ is blown God’s prophetic history will have come to an end; all the events and ages on his timetable will have been completed: the ‘mystery’ of his eternal purpose will have been finally revealed, so that there will be “no more time”, as the mighty angel declares.

A sealed book
'grapson', 'eidon'

Further echoes of Daniel 12 are the repeated “I saw” and I heard”: both he and John are experiencing prophetic visions. Also, the two angels are described in similar terms, though the detail differs: compare Daniel 10.5-6 with Revelation 10.1. But much the most striking parallel is the ‘sealed book’. After the exhaustive historical detail of chapter 11, leading up to the time, probably, of Antiochus Epiphanes, chapter 12 brings us to the ‘last days’ and the end of the age, to a time (‘kairos’) of unprecedented tribulation, and so to the resurrection of the dead. But these events are condensed into just 3 verses, giving us only the bare outlines. Then in verse 4 Daniel is told to “close up the words and seal the book until the time (‘kairos’) of the completion”. John is given a similar instruction. The mighty angel “cried out with a loud voice like the roar of a lion, and when he cried out the seven thunders spoke their own sounds. And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write it down, but I heard a voice from heaven saying ‘seal what the thunders said, and do not write it down” (10.3-4). What on earth - or in heaven - is going on here ? These instructions seem to cut clean against the grain of the prophetic calling. A prophet’s job-description is to ‘speak out’, to reveal God’s truth, not to conceal it. This seems to take us right back to the original pagan meaning of a ‘mystery’ as a religious experience to be shared only by privileged initiates, its secrets never divulged to outsiders: the initiates’ lips were ‘sealed’. ‘Thunder’ in scripture usually speaks of God’s awesome power and devastating judgement, as in Exodus 9.23, the plague of hail in Egypt, and 1 Samuel 7.10, when the Philistines are scattered in panic and then slaughtered by the Israelites. We may infer, then, that the seven thunders spoke of God’s impending judgement on the wicked; maybe the full horror of this judgement would be too terrifying even for the (open) Book of Revelation. So, presumably, Daniel is allowed only to refer to the unparalleled “tribulation” of the end-times, but forbidden to describe it in any detail. That revelation must wait until Jesus, the supreme Prophet, gives us more details of this ‘great tribulation’ in the ‘synoptic apocalypse’, which we visited frequently in our study of ‘the Mystery of Lawlessness’ in 2 Thessalonians 2. Twelve times in Revelation John is told to “write” (‘grapson’ in Greek, the aorist imperative - ‘do it now!’); this is the only time he is told not to write. It is worth noting the parallel usage of “I saw” (‘eidon’ in Greek) in Revelation; this word is used 44 times between 1.12 and 21.2, but its 45th and last occurrence, in 21.22, is in the negative: John “did not see” a temple in the heavenly city.

A sealed book, therefore, is a perfect image of a mystery, just as something or someone whose meaning is transparently clear may be described as ‘an open book’. We saw earlier on that a ‘mystery’ is only posed when a partial revelation has taken place: an ‘unknown unknown’ is not a mystery. In the two instances we have just looked at, the two books are so sealed that revelation is minimal; only the general context is clear, and redaction is almost total. Nevertheless, we do know that there are important truths about the end-times that we do not know, but which will be fully revealed in God’s good time. But in the wider sense, all prophecy is a sealed book, whose full meaning, or final chapter, will only be revealed in its outcome, as the prophecies of the incarnation have already been. We began this study by looking at the vocabulary of revelation, ‘concealing’ and ‘revealing’, ‘veiling’ and ‘unveiling’. We can now conclude it as we began, by looking at the vocabulary of ‘sealing’ and ‘opening’. First, however, we need to look at the ‘book’ itself.
1. ‘ BOOK’.

'biblos', 'biblion', 'biblaridion'
(i) scripture

The most common word for ‘book’ in the NT is ‘biblion’, which occurs 34 times; this seems to be almost identical in meaning to ‘biblos’, though, strictly speaking, it is the diminutive form, ‘a little book’. In this sense, it was used to refer to a written deposition or motion before court of law, and so to ‘a bill of divorce’, as in Matthew 19.7 and Mark 10.4. ‘Biblos’ originally meant ‘a papyrus plant’, but then came to mean ‘paper’, and so ‘a book’; it occurs 10 times in the NT. A third, very junior, member of the family, ‘biblaridion’, is found only in Revelation 10, 3 or 4 times, depending on MSS variations, and this really does mean ‘a little book’. Numerology can all too easily become an addiction, but I believe the following statistics are of interest, if not necessarily of great significance. Of the 44 instances of ‘biblos’ and ‘biblion’ combined, 7 refer specifically to the OT scriptures: “the book of ---” Isaiah (Luke 3.4, 4.17), of Psalms (Luke 20.42, Acts 1.20), of Moses (Mark 12.26), of the Law (Gal. 3.10), and of ‘the Prophets’ (Acts 7.42). Incidentally, though not, I believe, co-incidentally, these 7 instances between them cover all three of the categories into which the OT was traditionally divided: the Law, the Prophets and the Writings (i.e. the Psalms and Wisdom literature) - as expressed in Jesus’ own words in Luke 24.44. Another 7 occurrences of ‘book’ in the NT refer to ‘the Book of Life’, 6 in Revelation (3.5, 13.8, 17.8, 20.12 and 15, and 21.27), and the 7th in Philippians 4.3. Furthermore, there are two ‘7’s in the Book of Revelation itself. In chapter 5, the book (‘biblion’) “written on both sides and sealed with 7 seals” is introduced (v.1), and ‘biblion’ is used 6 more times in this chapter to refer to it, the 7 instances matching the 7 seals. Moreover, chapter 5 is later balanced by chapter 22, where, again, ‘biblion’ occurs 7 times, each one referring to [“the prophecies of] this book”, that is, the Book of Revelation itself. This in turn reflects what John is told at the very beginning of the book: “What you see, write into a book” (1.11). What, then, is the significance of a book? Oral teaching, such as Jesus’ teaching of his disciples, is personal and private; oral tradition can preserve it for a while, but a book makes it public and permanent. A vision, like a dream, is ephemeral, but, written down in a book, it becomes eternal. A book, then, is God’s chosen way of revealing his truth and his purposes to his people and to the world. It is not just the last book of the bible that is a ‘revelation’; all the other 65 books of scripture as well reveal something of God which otherwise we could only guess at. And although Revelation is, I think, the only book of the bible written in response to a specific command from God to “write into a book”, we may assume that all the other writers of scripture also wrote in obedience to the prompting of God’s Spirit. Most of scripture is written, as it were, ‘en clair’, so that ‘he who runs may read’, but the books of prophecy are, to a greater or lesser extent, “sealed”, so that their full significance only becomes clear as they are fulfilled in history.

(ii) the Book with Seven Seals
Deut 32.34-35

So much, then, for the Book of Scripture, which we, from our perspective, might call a ‘real book’, or even a ‘literal book’. But there are three other books referred to in Revelation, which we might call ‘metaphorical’, but are probably more ‘real’ than anything on earth. The first we have already met, the “Book with 7 Seals”. This book seems to be the book of God’s judgement on a godless world, the final chapter, perhaps, of redemption history, or the final act of the drama of salvation, still sealed, unlike the ‘mystery of the gospel’, so that the full horrors of God’s judgement should be hidden from us in all but their visionary outlines - just as John was told to “seal up” the words of the 7 thunders. This interpretation makes sense of an enigmatic detail in the ‘Song of Moses’ in Deuteronomy 32, which, as we saw earlier, is one of the OT prophecies that stands behind ‘our’ passage in Revelation 10. God says, through Moses, speaking of the apostate nation of Israel: “They are a nation without sense, there is no discernment in them. If only they were wise, and would understand this, and discern what their end will be. --- Have I not kept this in reserve and sealed it in my vaults? It is mine to avenge, I will repay.” (vv. 28-9, 34-5)Here, too, the full details of God’s avenging judgement are “sealed”.

(iii) biblaridion
Ez 2.9-3.3

Before we look at the other two kinds of book in Revelation, we will return to chapter 10 and to the ‘little book’ that the “mighty angel” brings to John. This is where John uses the (unique) diminutive form ‘biblaridion’. Although the context implies some continuity or connection with the ‘Book with 7 Seals’, since we are twice specifically told that it is “opened” (vv. 2, 8), John would surely not use a different word to describe it if it were exactly the same book. It seems, rather, that it is John’s particular portion of the book, which he has been called upon to make his own and to prophesy, as he is told in verse 11: “You must prophesy once again.” So not only does he take this ‘little book’ from the angel’s hand, but he is told to “eat it up” - though the Greek verb, rather more logically, literally means “eat it down”. This instruction would have surprised Jewish readers less than it does us, for it is another direct echo from OT scripture. The prophet Ezekiel is given just that same instruction: he too is handed a book “written on both sides”, and told to “eat this book. So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth” (Ez. 2. 9-10, 3. 1-3). John, too, finds the taste of his ‘little book’ “as sweet as honey in my mouth” - but sweet soon turns to sour: “when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter” (10. 10-11). This vivid image expresses a truth vital both for OT prophets and for preachers and teachers of God’s word today: to be effectively proclaimed God’s word must be taken fully into the heart as well as the head before it can be given out. A preacher must preach his sermon to himself before he can preach it to his congregation. But John’s experience takes Ezekiel’s one step further: preaching the gospel is always a ‘sweet and sour’ experience - and this is where our final ‘mystery’ redresses the balance of ‘the mystery of the gospel’. Every faithful preacher of the gospel must set out the ‘bad news’ of God’s judgement before coming to the good news of his saving grace through the cross of Christ: a gospel that is all sugar is not a recipe for lasting Christian discipleship. There is another sense, too, in which the evangelist’s calling is to a ‘sweet and sour’ experience: just as the cross divided the penitent thief who was saved from the unrepentant thief who died in his sins, so every evangelistic sermon divides those who respond and are saved from those who are hardened in their unbelief. The “rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15. 7) will be balanced by the ‘bitter taste’ left in the stomach of the evangelist at the thought of those who have not repented. To preach the gospel is an awesome responsibility, and evangelists, I believe, need prayer support more than any one else in the church.

(iv) Revelation 20
Romans 3.20, Matthew 12.36

The other ‘metaphorical’ books, one of which we have already met, are both found in Revelation 20. This is one of the most awesome scenes in Revelation. John again “saw” God on his judgement throne, and “saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne. And books were opened, and another book was opened, which is the Book of Life, and the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to their deeds” (vv. 11-13). If the Book with the 7 Seals contains the details of God’s planned judgement on the world as a whole, here in chapter 20 judgement is individual; all mankind is here, each judged “according to their deeds” (vv. 12-13). Out of the great heavenly archive God’s record books are brought, the personal files kept on each one of us, recording all our deeds. We already know what the judgement will be: Paul has told us “by the works of the law no human being on earth will be judged to be just before God” (Rom. 3.20). If these were the only books in God’s archive, all mankind would stand before God’s throne condemned and without hope: these are the books of death. At the school where I taught, the standard punishment for misbehaviour or under-achievement was ‘Extra School’, known in most other schools simply as ‘detention’. But in our case, to inconvenience was added infamy: each candidate for Extra School was entered into the ‘Extra School’ Book, an impressive leather-bound volume clearly built to last, and when finally filled, stored away in the school archives. In this book were recorded the miscreant’s name and crime for all the teaching staff to see - and now, for curious researchers: the personal made public. One of the school’s most famous old boys, the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, was, the records show, consigned to Extra School for being ‘noisy’ - the ephemeral made (almost) eternal. In the same way, if on an infinitely greater scale, God’s record-books contain the details of even our most trivial failings - as we might think them. One of Jesus’ least ‘comfortable words’ is Matthew 12.36: “I tell you that men will have to give account on the Day of Judgement of every careless word they have spoken” (NIV). The words of our mouths alone are enough to condemn each of us many times over, and they are all recorded indelibly (but see the next paragraph!) in God’s record-books. But praise the Lord for double-entry book-keeping! (There is a sentence I never thought I would write!) There is another book in God’s archive, “the Lamb’s Book of Life” (Rev. 13.8); this book, too, is opened (20.12) to reveal (perhaps the greatest revelation in Revelation!) those who truly belong to Christ, so that, as John describes it, the process is simple, if terrible: “Any one who was not found written in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire” (v.15).

(v) Colossians 2. 13-14
Matthew 27.63, John 19.19-22

The fact that this book is referred to by John as “the Lamb’s Book of Life” reminds us that this life is only possible because the Lamb of God died for us. Paul makes the same point with slightly different imagery in Colossians 2. 13-14, and it is worth making a brief detour from our study of books - though not from God's archive of personal files - to look at this passage, both for its own sake, and because it takes us to Matthew 27 and John 19, which we will have cause to revisit several times in the remaining pages of this study. “When you were dead in your sins”, Paul says, “God brought you to new life in Christ, graciously forgiving all your sins; he erased the written record of law-breaking that stood against you and between you and God, and removed it by nailing it to the cross of Christ.” The word translated “written record” (‘cheirographon’, literally ‘hand-written’) usually referred to an I.O.U., an acknowledgement of a debt. But here it seems more likely, since the Colossians had been “dead in their sins”, and so not at all acknowledging their debt to God, that Paul imagines this to be God’s ‘written record’ of the unpayable debt we have accumulated by our failure to keep his commandments. At first he says that this writing has been “rubbed out”, like the wax on a writing-tablet smoothed over with the flattened end of the stilus. But in mid-sentence another image seems to occur to him. Our sins can only be ‘blotted out’ and our debt cancelled because Jesus paid for them on the cross. It seems that it was normal practice at a crucifixion for a sign (a ‘titulus’) to be fixed at the top of each victim’s cross declaring the crime for which he was being executed (Matt. 27.37). The ‘titulus’ above Jesus’ head simply read: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. Pilate wrote this partly, perhaps, out of admiration for Jesus, but mostly, one suspects, out of contempt for the Jews; he certainly gave them short shrift when their leaders complained that he should have written that Jesus ‘claimed to be’ the King of the Jews. “What I have written”, Pilate replied, “I have written.” (John 19.22). Ironically, of course, behind Pilate’s claim to sovereign power lies the supreme authority of a sovereign God: man composes, one might say, but God disposes. This same irony is suggested in another deputation of the Jewish leaders to Pilate, recorded by Matthew. Throughout the gospels, Jesus is addressed by all sorts of people by the title ‘kurie’, which is not only the normal word for ‘sir’, but also the OT title of God himself, ‘Lord’. But the Jewish authorities never address Jesus with this respectful title, let alone with its worshipful connotations. The only person, throughout the written record of the gospels, whom they address as ‘kurie’ is Pilate, in their obsequious approach to him in verse 63 of chapter 27. Their hated foreign overlord they address as ‘my Lord’, while their true Lord they have put to death. We will see a third twist to this irony before long, at the end of this chapter. Here, however (John 19. 19-22) the point is that no crime is attributed to Jesus because he is sinless; even Pilate saw that he was guiltless (19.6). Paul now, perhaps in a moment of mid-sentence inspiration (there is plenty of scope for this in a Pauline sentence) completes this powerful image for us: it is our charge-sheet which is nailed to Jesus’ cross, for it is our guilt that he is bearing; it is our ‘I.O.U’s’ that fill the space so conveniently, though unwittingly, left blank by proud Pilate, because it is our debt that Jesus paid on the cross.

(vi) God’s books

Of the 44 occurrences of ‘book’ in the NT (‘biblos’ + ‘biblion’), 40 refer, more or less explicitly, to God’s books. The ‘literal’ book, the Book of Scripture, reveals publicly and permanently God’s truth and God’s purposes. Of the unwritten books, which are stored in God’s memory (if we may deconstruct the imagery of Revelation 20), all but one record all the actions of the entire human race; but the one remaining book, the ‘vital’ one, contains the names of all those who truly belong to Christ. All these books will be opened and become public on the Day of Judgement, but until then they remain, if not sealed, at least closed. The ‘sealed’ books are of two kinds, as is apparent in the difference between Daniel’s ‘sealing’ and John’s. Daniel is told to “seal the words of the book”, while John is told: “seal the words of the 7 thunders, and do not write them down”. John, of course, obeyed, so the words of the 7 thunders are not recorded in Revelation; we know that the thunders spoke, but we do not know what they said. Daniel’s book, on the other hand, we do have; it is ‘sealed’, as are all the other as yet unfulfilled prophecies of scripture, because, although we are told in broad outline what is going to happen, we know neither exactly when nor exactly what. The Book of Revelation is the prime example of this: long on graphic imagery, short on simple statements of future fact. It is like a children’s history book from which the text has been removed and only the illustrations remain. A sealed book is a closed book, and a closed book is a pretty good definition of a mystery.

2. ‘SEAL’

‘sphragis’, ‘sphragizō’
Est 8.8

This leads us on to our next word-study, on ‘seal’. This can either be a noun in Greek, ‘sphragis’, or a verb, the obviously related ‘sphragizō’; there is also a single instance of the compound verb, ‘katasphragizō’, which is used the first time the “Book with the 7 Seals” is introduced in Revelation 5.1. Between them, these three words occur 32 times in the NT, 16 each of the noun and the verbs; and of these 32, 22 are found in Revelation. Sealing something usually involves two distinct actions. If we take a more-or-less contemporary example, such as sealing an important letter or package, the first task is to secure it, probably with wax, so that the contents are safe, and the second is to stamp the still-moist wax with the owner’s or sender’s personal seal, so that the recipient can be assured both of the authenticity of the sender and of the security of the contents: if the seal has not been broken, the contents have not been tampered with. The uses of ‘sphragis’ and ‘sphragizō’ in the NT are mostly metaphorical, and reflect one or the other of these two processes, or both together. So, elaborating a little on a hint provided by my lexicon, I suggest that ‘sealing’ is an image either of secrecy, or of security, or of sovereignty. We will begin, however, with a literal example of ‘sealing’ from the OT, in Esther 8.8. The villainous Haman’s plot against the Jews has been exposed; he has been hanged, and his property given by King Artaxerxes to Esther. Now he gives her ‘carte blanche’: “What more do you seek? Write in my name what seems good to you, and seal it with my signet-ring; for whatever is written at the king’s instruction and sealed with his signet-ring no one may argue against.” (LXX) The sovereign’s seal, therefore, signifies the authority of the sender and guarantees the authenticity of the contents.

(i) the stone
Matthew 27.66
'asphalizō', 'sunagō'

The nearest we get to literal ‘sealings’ in the NT are two utterly contrasting yet fascinatingly parallel instances of the verb. The first one returns us to Pilate and the obsequious Jews addressing him as “my Lord”. The reason for their visit is to ask the governor to secure Jesus’ tomb in case his disciples steal his body and claim that he has been raised from the dead, just as he had claimed he would be. “Order the tomb to be secured”, they ask; Pilate’s reply is characteristically curt: “You have a guard [presumably the Temple guard]; go and secure it as you know how.” So, Matthew relates, “they went with their guard and secured the tomb by sealing the stone” (27.64-6). The threefold repetition of the verb to ‘make safe’ or ‘secure’ (‘asphalizō’ in Greek) is surely another of Matthew’s subtle ironies - as is his introduction to this episode. “On the next day---” would have sufficed, but he goes on to point out that this was “[the day] after Friday”, that is, the Sabbath. After all the petty criticisms they had made of Jesus and his disciples for ‘breaking’ the Sabbath, here they were entering a gentile’s residence after quite a walk to do business with the Roman governor. Maybe there is another sly dig here, too: Matthew says that “the chief priests and Pharisees gathered together to Pilate”, the verb here being ‘sunagō’, from which ‘synagogue’, is derived - which is where they should have been ‘gathering together’ on the Sabbath. Their ‘sealing’ of the stone represents both a futile attempt at security, and an equally futile assertion of sovereignty over the tomb and Jesus’ body: he was the one who was really in charge, even in death.

(ii) the abyss
Revelation 20.3, Mark 6.20, John 18.38, Gen 3.15
'kratō', 'planos'

The other instance, almost inevitably, takes us back, or forwards, to Revelation. Chapter 20 begins much like chapter 10: “And I saw an angel descending from heaven, holding the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand. And he seized the dragon, the ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for 1,000 years, and threw him into the abyss, and locked it, and set a seal above it, so that he might no longer deceive the nations ---” (vv.1-3). Here again, the seal is a more-or-less literal seal, intended to make the abyss secure, just as the Jewish leaders attempted to make Jesus’ tomb secure. But it is God who is ultimately sovereign, both to break the seal on Jesus’ tomb and to impose the seal on Satan’s prison. The word I have translated ‘seized’ is ‘kratō’ in Greek, literally to have ‘power’ (‘kratos’) over someone. It is the verb used of Herod’s ‘arrest’ of John the Baptist (Matt. 14.3, Mark 6.17), and also the verb used 12 times in all in the same two gospels to refer to the ‘arrest’ of Jesus. Before we look at the Devil’s fate, it is worth looking at the parallels between John the Baptist and his cousin, Jesus. Both, as we have seen, were ‘arrested’; both convinced their judges that they were guiltless: Herod knew John to be “a righteous and holy man” (Mark 6.20), and of Jesus Pilate declared “I find no fault in him” (John 18.38, and again in 19.36); and both were, nonetheless, condemned to die as the pressure of public opinion outweighed justice. John was, indeed, the forerunner of Jesus. Just as this comparison is prompted by the use of ‘kratō’ in both contexts, so the double use of the verb ‘sphragizō’ encourages us to explore the parallels, and even more, of course, the contrasts, between the burial of Jesus and the imprisonment of Satan. The first of these contrasting parallels is found a little earlier in the story of each event. In the meeting between the Jewish authorities and Pilate that we have already looked at twice, they refer to Jesus as “that deceiver” (‘planos’, Matt. 27.63 - they cannot bring themselves to name his name, just as in Acts 5.28), and use its related abstract noun , ‘planē’, in the next verse, saying that “the last deception will be worse than the first” if the disciples steal Jesus’ body and declare him raised from the dead. But the real deceiver, of course, is Satan, and his imprisonment in the abyss is to prevent him from “deceiving the nations any longer”. The really illuminating comparison, however, is the narrative structure of the events after the ‘sealing’: the parallel lies in the three clearly defined stages of the subsequent history of Jesus and Satan, and the contrast consists in the time differences. Jesus is ‘sealed’ in the tomb for three days - even the Jewish authorities know that this is what was predicted - while Satan is to be imprisoned for 1,000 years. After his resurrection, Jesus was seen on earth for a period of 40 days, a time spent encouraging and teaching the disciples the truth about himself and his mission; Satan, after his imprisonment, “must be released for a short time” (Rev. 20.3), time he will spend on earth once again “deceiving the nations”. Finally, Jesus ascended into heaven for all eternity, while, as for Satan, “fire came down from heaven” and consumed his army, and he himself, “the Devil who deceived them”, was “thrown into the lake of fire” for all eternity. The parallels make the contrasts all the more awesome. Revelation 20 is the third-to-last chapter of the bible; in the third chapter of the bible, Genesis 3, God declares judgement on the serpent, identified in Revelation as “the ancient Serpent, the Devil and Satan” (12.9): “The woman’s seed [Jesus] will crush your head, and he will strike your heel” (v.15, NIV). The sealed tomb and the sealed abyss respectively fulfil this, the first prophecy in scripture and the last to be fulfilled.

‘epanō’ (i) ‘more than’
Mark 14.5, 1 Corinthians 15.6

One seemingly insignificant word in the description of Satan’s imprisonment might easily escape notice, especially in translation: the angel “locked and sealed [the abyss] over him” The Greek for ‘over’ here is ‘epanō’, which, for a preposition, appears comparatively rarely in the NT, just 19 times. Although a not-very-common word of few pretensions it plays a supporting role in several key events in the drama of salvation. ‘epanō’ means ‘over’ or ‘on top of’, and the occurrences we will be focusing on all express , or are connected with, the concept of authority, or sovereignty. Twice, however, it is used simply with a number to mean ‘more than’. When Mary anoints Jesus’ feet at Bethany with “very precious ointment”, certain fault-finders complained that “ it could have been sold for more than 300 denarii and given to the poor” (Mark. 14.4-5). John identifies the objector here as Judas Iscariot, and, with untypical cynicism / characteristic insight (delete to taste!), says that he was concerned not for the poor but for his own gain, being a thief and the treasurer of the group (12.4-6). The other instance of this meaning is when Paul states that, on one occasion, the risen Jesus was seen by “more than 500 brethren at one time” (1 Cor. 15.6).

(ii) simply ‘on top of’
Matthew 5.14, 23.18-23, Luke 11.44

There are also a few instances where ‘epanō’ is used simply as a preposition of place, without any connotations of authority or sovereignty. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says that “a city that is situated on top of a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt. 5.14). He later gives us a striking contrast to this image with another one: the Pharisees, he says (Luke 11.44) are like “unmarked tombs, which people walk on top of without realising it”. In Matthew 23.18-22 we once again find Jesus uttering ‘woes’ against the Pharisees because, like Judas, they are more concerned with their own profit than with God’s glory. They maintain that to swear an oath by the altar “is nothing”, but to swear an oath “by the gift on top of the altar” is binding. Jesus, however, teaches that it is the altar which is important, since it is the altar which sanctifies the gift which is placed ‘on top of’ the altar. This is an interesting example of a context where ‘epanō’ does not express ‘authority over’, though the Pharisees claim that the gift on the altar is superior to it. But the third use of ‘epanō’ in this passage (v.22) restores the usual connotation: “The one who swears by heaven”, Jesus continues, “swears by the throne of God and by the one who sits on [top of] the throne.” To be seated “on the throne” is, perhaps, the supreme expression of sovereignty.

(iii) ‘epanō’ + ‘exousia’
Luke 4.39">Luke 4.39, 10.19, 19.17-19

There are three further instances where ‘epanō’ is used with ‘sitting’; but before we look at them, there are also three instances where it is used specifically in conjunction with ‘exousia’, ‘authority’ - all in the words of Jesus. When the 72 return from their mission, Jesus tells them: “I saw Satan falling like lightning from heaven. Look! I have given you authority to walk over (‘epanō’) snakes and scorpions, and against all the power of the enemy.” (Luke 10.18-19) This reminds us of our starting-point in this brief study, God’s authority over Satan, “the ancient serpent”, expressed by “sealing over the top of” him in the abyss (Rev. 20.3). The other two instances occur at the end of the ‘parable of the pounds’, also in Luke (19.17,19), when the faithful servants who have traded profitably with their pounds are rewarded, the first with “authority over (‘epanō’) ten cities”, and the second with “authority over 5 cities”. Similarly, also in Luke, though not this time specifically, when Jesus stands ‘over’ Peter’s mother-in-law, it symbolizes his authority ‘over’ her illness; this is then expressed verbally when “he rebuked the fever and it immediately left her” (4.39). Only a few verses earlier (34) the same verb (‘epitimō’) is used by Luke when Jesus ‘rebuked’ the evil spirit possessing the man in the synagogue in Capernaum: “Be quiet and come out of him”, Jesus said; whereupon, “in front of everyone it came out”: authority!

(iv) ‘epanō’ at key moments
(a) the Epipany
Matthew 2.9

We now come to those instances of ‘epanō’ which, as I said earlier, seem to occur at key moments in the gospel story. The first is at the nativity. In Matthew’s account, the Magi are led by a star to Bethlehem, which eventually “came to a standstill right above (‘epanō’) the place where the young child was” (2.9). We would naturally take this ‘epanō’ as a straightforward preposition of place, ‘over’, were it not for its usages elsewhere. Here, perhaps, it suggests that the star is a symbol of God’s sovereignty, just like the ‘pillar of fire’, which both guided the Israelites through the wilderness, and symbolized God’s presence with them. So here, the infant Jesus is both ‘under’ his Father’s authority, as he claimed to be throughout his ministry, and also a sharer in his Father’s sovereignty.

(b) Palm Sunday
Matthew 21 7, Mark 11.12

The next key moment, after the Feast of the Epiphany, is Palm Sunday. In Matthew’s account, Jesus sends two disciples to fetch “a tethered ass together with her foal” from a nearby village; when these had been brought, “they put their clothes over them, and set Jesus on top of (‘epanō’) them” (21.7) If the second “them”, like the first, refers to the two donkeys, this raises an interesting question. Discarding immediately the possibility that Jesus rode both donkeys at once, we must assume that he rode them successively. Mark and Luke only mention the colt, and omit his mother entirely from their accounts; but they do add the detail that “no one had ever sat” on the colt (Mark 11.2, Luke 19.30). Perhaps the donkey carried Jesus on the first part of the journey, up the hill into the city (the ‘donkey work’!), and then, when the colt had witnessed this example of humble service, it took over for the last part of the journey through the streets of Jerusalem, so that this is the memory that the other gospel-writers preserve. Anyway, the image of someone riding ‘epanō’ a donkey is an obvious image of authority, though the ‘virgin’ colt is far removed from a proud conqueror’s war-horse. We have here, then, as the prophets foretold (Matthew splices together Isaiah and Zechariah in verse 5), a king riding on a donkey: sovereignty and humility, meekness and majesty.

(v) the Pale Horse
Revelation 6.8

There is another ‘riding’ usage of ‘epanō’, as stark a contrast with Palm Sunday as could be imagined. We will have a brief look at this before returning to the final two ‘key stage’ instances at the crucifixion and the resurrection. Once again, we move on, or back, to Revelation, and to the opening of the ‘Book with 7 Seals’ in chapter 6. The first 4 seals, when opened, reveal what are known as “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”. The first is seated ‘on’ a white horse, the second ‘on’ a fiery-red horse, the third ‘on’ a black horse. All these ‘on’s are the simple preposition ‘epi’; but when we come to the 4th seal (v.8), the rider is ‘up-on’ the horse, ‘epanō’: “high up on”, perhaps, captures the distinction. This rider’s name is Death, and Hades follows close behind (the verb here is ‘akolouthō’, the one used of the disciples ‘following’ Jesus). The other 3 riders have all been ‘given’ something, but, in line with the connotations of ‘epanō’ that we have, I hope, become familiar with, Death and Hades are “given authority” (‘exousia’, as before), so that this example could have been included in the earlier group, though it is not explicitly authority ‘over’. They are, in fact, given authority to kill a quarter of the world’s population; this is authority, but delegated authority (‘given’ by God), and limited authority (only "a quarter”), so it is not sovereignty, which belongs to God alone.

Key moments: (c) the crucifixion
Matthew 27.37, Is 53.6

Our next example of ‘epanō’ also takes us back to a passage and a detail that we have looked at quite recently. In his account of the crucifixion, Matthew (27.37) writes that “they set above (‘epanō’) his head his guilt (‘aitia’) written, ‘This is Jesus, King of the Jews’”. Pilate had declared three times (John 18.38, 19.4, 6) “I find no ‘aitia’ in him”. The guilt he was bearing was ours. Jesus is no longer in authority, seated ‘on’ a donkey; he is now subject to authority, the authority of the Law. Against Pilate’s better ‘judgement’, this placard, or charge-sheet, asserts Rome’s authority to execute Jesus as a law-breaker: although he lives ‘under’ Roman rule, he has tried, the placard implies, to subvert that rule by his claims to kingship. But for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, what is really happening on the cross is that Jesus is ‘under’ God’s judgement, and ‘under’ the curse of the Law. It is we, all mankind, who have “gone astray”, but “the Lord has laid ‘on’ him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53.6 - in the LXX "transferred to him")

(d) the resurrection
Matthew 28 2, Revelation 20.1-3

The final ‘epanō’ in this sequence of key events occurs one chapter and three days later. The first day of the next week begins with “the angel of the Lord coming down from heaven” (v.2a). The last time we met this phenomenon was in Revelation 20, when the angel “came down from heaven” armed with God’s authority to “arrest Satan and lock him in the abyss and seal it ‘on top of him’” (vv. 1-3). Now the angel’s task is just the opposite: to free Jesus from the tomb in which he had been ‘sealed’. Just as the placard on the cross was Rome’s attempt to assert its authority ‘over’ Jesus, so the sealing of the tomb was the Jews’ attempt to assert their authority over his body and make it ‘secure’. Now the angel of the Lord shows where authority really lies, and who is really sovereign: in a moment of time, in half a verse, “he came and rolled away the stone and sat on top of it” (28.2b). This is the third of the three uses of ‘epanō’ combined with the verb ‘to sit’. God may delegate a limited and temporary authority to Death ‘up on’ his pale horse, and to his outrider, Hades, but on the third day their authority is annulled, and it becomes evident that it is God who is always in control, ‘up on’ his throne (Matt. 23.22).

(vi) John 3.31

We have now looked at 17 of the 19 occurrences of ‘epanō’; the final 2 (or 1, according to some MSS) come together in John 3.31 - and conveniently lead us back to our interrupted study of ‘sphragizō’. This verse comes immediately after John the Baptist’s comparison of himself with Jesus, and his role with Jesus’ role: Jesus is the bridegroom, John merely the groomsman, or best man, so that “Jesus must increase, and I must decrease”. Many (including NIV) believe that John’s speech continues to the end of the chapter (vv.31-6). I believe that this is very unlikely, for verses 35-6, in particular, are far more characteristic of the apostle than of the Baptist. It also seems appropriate that “I must decrease” are the last words spoken by the Baptist in the apostle’s gospel. These verses are, rather, the apostle’s reflections on the way Jesus has superseded his cousin’s ministry. The prologue to his gospel has told us that the Baptist was “a man sent out from God”; the verb here is ‘apostellō’, and I will adopt, on a strictly ad hoc basis, the American habit of ‘verbing’ nouns and retranslate this as “a man apostled by God”. This ministry was to “bear witness” to the light, though he himself was not that light. Now, in 3.31, John writes “the one who comes from above is over (‘epanō’) all”. “All” here could mean either “all men” or “all things”, so, once again, I will retranslate as “the one who comes from above has supreme authority; the one from the earth is of the earth and speaks of the earth. The one who comes from heaven [has supreme authority]” - the last three words are not repeated in some MSS. Despite the various difficulties and uncertainties of this passage (more to follow!), it has at least clinched definitively the connotation of ‘authority over’ which attaches to so many of the instances of ‘epanō’ that we have looked at. The angels who “came down from heaven” to free Jesus and to imprison Satan came down clothed in God’s authority, authority over death (despite his ‘pale horse’) and over Satan. Jesus, too, has “come down from heaven”, and his authority is supreme.

‘sphragizō’
(iii)
John 3.33, 21.24

Two verses later, we are back with ‘sphragizō, though not free of difficulties. “The one who has come from heaven”, John (the apostle) continues, “bears witness to what he has seen and heard”. The Baptist had borne witness to Jesus because he had seen “the Spirit descending from heaven on him like a dove” (1.72). Now Jesus bears witness to what he has seen and heard from his Father in heaven: he, and his teaching, are uniquely authoritative, but “no one accepts his witness” (3.32 - it is hard to see how these could be the words of the Baptist). Then follows ‘our’ verse: “the one who received his witness ‘sealed’ that God is true”. Problems: (1) “no one” in verse 32 clearly does not mean literally ‘no one’, but rather ‘the world in general’ - not a great problem. (2) This is the only instance of ‘sphragizō’ followed by a subordinate clause; what does it mean to “seal that God is true”? We will deal with this together with (3): Is it the act itself of receiving that ‘seals’, or rather that its consequences lead to ‘sealing’? If it is the act itself, then to ‘seal’ means to ‘affix one’s seal to’ the statement that “God is true” - to ‘sign up’ to this truth, or to ‘attest’ to it. This makes reasonable sense in itself, but does not really fit the context - to ‘attest that God is true’ is something of a tautology. The other interpretation assigns a less natural meaning to ‘sphragizō’ but matches the context better, and is in accordance with the imagery of sealing elsewhere in scripture: to accept Jesus’ teaching is increasingly to experience an inner assurance that “God is true”. A possible translation, then, might be: “the one who has received Jesus’ witness has become sure that God is true”. (4) Is the expression “the one who has received” general or particular? The use of the aorist tense in both verbs here suggests, perhaps, that John is referring particularly to himself. He, the ‘beloved disciple’ has received and remembered and recorded for our benefit a great deal of Jesus’ teaching, and this is his testimony to the effect that it has had on his life. If this is the correct interpretation, it makes this verse similar to John’s concluding testimony in 21.24: “This is the disciple who wrote these things and bears witness to them, and we know that his witness is true”. Both Johns, then, the one in advance, the other retrospectively, bear witness to Jesus, who himself bears witness to his Father in heaven: a nice triptych, the two flanking figures pointing to the one in the centre, who is pointing upwards to the source of all truth, God in heaven, from whom he has come down.

John 3. 34-36

This interpretation also, I believe, makes sense of the next verse (34). Why does “accepting Jesus’ testimony” convince us that “God is true”? “Because he whom God sent out (‘apostled’ - Jesus, here, but also true of the other apostles) speaks the words of God” (34a). And how does this intellectual conviction become deep inner assurance? “Because God does not give us his Spirit by halves” - or “God gives us his Spirit in full measure” (34b). As the Spirit lights up Jesus’ words for us, and shows them to be God’s words, so also he warms up our hearts, so that belief becomes faith - just 2 verses later! “The one who has faith in (literally, ‘into’) the Son has eternal life” (v.36). Here, then, in this short passage (31-6) we have set out for us the journey of faith from beginning to end, from tentative first steps to glorious finish. We begin when we first take Jesus’ teaching seriously, and the ending is when we entrust our lives wholly to Jesus in saving faith (believing ‘into’ Jesus, as John puts it - 39 times!). At that moment we ‘have’ (present tense) eternal life. All three persons of the Trinity are at work in this process. God the Father ‘apostles’ his Son to reveal his truth; Jesus comes down from heaven and bears witness to his Father’s saving purpose, so that all the world may know the way of salvation; and the Holy Spirit applies that truth to the hearts of individual men and women, so that they are “born again” into eternal life, and 'sealed' with the inner assurance which the Spirit works within us (see Ephesians 1.13).

‘sphragizō’ (iv): John 6.27
‘charactēr'
Hebrews1.3, Gen 1.27

In a moment we will look at the way Paul uses the image of ‘sealing’ to show how it is one of the ministries of the Holy Spirit to bring assurance to the hearts and minds of believers. First, though, there is one more instance of ‘sphragizō’ in John to look at - this time beset with rather fewer problems. Chapter 6 begins with the feeding of the 5,000, after which Jesus and his disciples return to Capernaum on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, separately at first, then together, as Jesus joins them half way across. The Jews realise that they have gone, and they, too, recross the Sea, and when they find Jesus they ask him “How did you get here?” (v.25) Jesus, as so often, does not answer the question they ask, but rather addresses the attitude behind it. They have not followed him, he tells them, because their hearts are full of praise and wonder at the miraculous ‘signs’ they have seen, but because their bellies are full of loaves and fishes. “Do not work for the physical food which ends up down the drain” (I paraphrase!) “Rather, work for the spiritual food which lasts all the way to eternal life; this [only] the Son of Man will give you, for it is on him [alone] that the Father has set his seal” (‘sphragizō’, v.27). How has God ‘set his seal’ on his Son? The answer, surely, is simple (pace Milne in the BST commentary, who seems to me to make it unnecessarily complicated). The miraculous feeding of 5,000 people on 5 loaves and 2 fish can only be the work of the Creator God himself, a ‘sign’, John calls it, that Jesus is indeed God’s Son. For John, it seems, a ‘sign’ and a ‘seal’ are virtually synonyms, related to each other, perhaps, as are ‘evidence’ and ‘proof’. This ‘seal’ signifies, not assurance or security in the heart of the believer, as last time, but sovereignty, the sovereignty of God the Father to which Jesus willingly and humbly subjects himself, but which he also manifests in himself by his mighty miracles. This miracle, in particular, is not just a ‘sign’ that God is with Jesus, as he was with the (other!) apostles when they performed miracles in Acts; nor is it just a ‘seal’ of authenticity testifying that he has indeed come down from heaven, as he claims 5 times in this chapter. This miracle supremely is the ‘stamp’ of God’s likeness on Jesus. This image sharpens and refines the image of the seal, and it is the writer to the Hebrews who does this for us. He says that Jesus is “the exact representation of God’s image” (1.3, NIV); NEB, more helpfully, preserves the imagery of the Greek: Jesus is “the stamp of God’s very being”. The Greek word used here has been absorbed unchanged into English, but is only used this once in the NT: ‘charactēr’ (in Greek the ‘e’ is long). Originally this meant ‘an implement for stamping’, derived from the verb ‘charassō’, to ‘engrave’. Then, as here, it came to mean the image on the stamp which was transferred in facsimile onto the metal or wax that was to be so marked: the image on the article so stamped was “the exact likeness” of the image on the stamp. We could, then, with all due reverence, I hope, say that Jesus was ‘the spitting image’ of his Father. If the first Adam was created “in the likeness of God” (Gen. 1.27), the second Adam was “the exact likeness” of God: he was, and is, and ever will be, God incarnate.

(v) ‘sphragizō’ in Paul
'arrabōn', 'apolutrōsis'

Paul uses ‘sphragis’ and ‘sphragizō’ 7 times in all; 3 of these instances, all of the verb, develop the theme of ‘assurance’ or ‘security’ which we saw in John 3.33, and each links this inner sense of security to the work of the Holy Spirit within the believer. The first, and perhaps the simplest, of these is in 2 Corinthians 1. 21-2: “The one who roots us firmly and securely into Christ, and has anointed us (‘chrisas’ in Greek), is God, and it is God, too, who has sealed us for himself, and given us the pledge of the Holy Spirit in our hearts”. The verb ‘sphragizō’ here is used in the middle voice, which I have rendered “sealed for himself”. From an objective point of view, this ‘sealing’ represents God’s sovereignty over us: the seal is a mark of ownership. Subjectively, though, this seal gives us a great sense of security, mediated through the Spirit at work in our hearts. This is, then, a two-sided coin: only if we submit to God’s sovereignty over us can we enjoy the sense of security which his ownership of us brings. The image of the ‘pledge’ is repeated in our next passage, Ephesians 1.13-14: “When you put your faith in Christ, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise” (or “the Holy Spirit who was promised toy you”), “who is the pledge of our inheritance until the time when he redeems those he has already purchased”. The Greek word for ‘pledge’ is ‘arrabōn’, a ‘down-payment’ or ‘deposit’ on something you have bought but not yet taken possession of. We saw a while back that this word in Modern Greek has come to mean ‘an engagement-ring’, which beautifully transforms this image from a business transaction into an intimate affair of the heart. The third Pauline use of ‘sphragizō’ in this context is also in Ephesians (4.30) - in musical terms, a brief reprise of a beautiful melody heard earlier: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit, in whom you have been sealed until the day of redemption”. These two verses introduce us to another key word which further develops the scenario suggested by the image of ‘sealing’: ‘apolutrōsis’, the act of ‘redemption’, taking into one’s possession what has already been paid for. If one goes to an art exhibition in a commercial gallery, one may well notice that some of the paintings have red stickers attached to their frames or to their captions. The Greek for ‘red sticker’ could well be ‘sphragis’! They are ‘seals’ indicating that the picture has already been bought and is no longer for sale: its future is secure. So it is with us. We have been ‘bought’ by Jesus, we belong to Jesus, but we have not yet been ‘taken home’ by Jesus; rather (to extend the analogy a little further) he leaves us ‘on display’, so that the world may see something of the character of the artist reflected in his work - for (still in Ephesians, 2.10) “we are his workmanship” as well as his purchased possession; what is more, we are ‘work in progress’, for Jesus wants continually to improve and beautify, through his Holy Spirit, his work in us. Here, then, is a helpful illustration of the tension in Christian experience between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’. Already the full price of our ransom has been paid by Christ on the cross; already we belong to him in faith, and his Spirit lives in us to give us assurance of this; but our ‘redemption’ is not yet complete, we are still ‘work in progress’, we are still ‘strangers and pilgrims’ in this world, waiting for the day when the promise of the ‘engagement-ring’ will be fulfilled, and Jesus will take us to himself.

Paul’s use of 'sphragis'
(i)
Timothy 2.19

Paul uses the noun ‘sphragis’ 3 times, and we will look briefly at each. The first, 2 Timothy 2.19, continues the theme of assurance. Timothy has to deal with those who oppose his authority with false teaching, “saying that the resurrection has already happened” (v.18). Paul encourages him by referring obliquely to the fate of Dathan and Abiram, who rebelled against the authority of Moses (Numbers 16). Their destruction demonstrated dramatically that to oppose Moses was to oppose God, for “the Lord knows those who are his”. In dealing with the issue of false teaching, he also refers, though, again, obliquely, to Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish builders: to base your life and belief on Jesus’ teaching is to build on a “form foundation”. So, in full, Paul tells Timothy: “In contrast [with the false teachers], God’s foundation stands firm, and this is its seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his’”. Here, however, unlike Ephesians, the two images do not combine to form a coherent picture, but rather are two different images of the same truth. A “firm foundation” and “a seal” both speak of assurance, the assurance that comes from accepting Jesus’ teaching, as in John 3.33, and the assurance of knowing that we are known by God and belong to him - his “purchased possession”, as in Ephesians 1.14. Once again, though, assurance is only one side of the coin: Paul adds a second seal broadly based on Numbers 16 (v.26 this time): “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from unrighteousness” - for, as Jesus said, “not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but the one who does the will of my heavenly Father” (Matt. 7.21). To put it crisply, if, perhaps, simplistically, ‘belonging’ implies both ‘believing’ and ‘behaving’.

(ii) Romans 4.11

The next instance of ‘sphragis’ also connotes assurance and belonging. This time we are in the middle of Romans 4, a typically dense Pauline argument, based on what, for him, was probably the most important verse in the OT, Genesis 15.6: “Abraham believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (NIV). Salvation is not by works, as Paul has shown in chapter 3, since we can never fully keep the Law, but by grace through faith in Jesus. But an important question arises: Was Abraham thus justified before he was circumcised, or after? If it was the latter, then ‘post hoc’ could be interpreted by legalists as ‘propter hoc’, i.e. that his justification was due, in part or in whole, to his circumcision, that is, to obeying the Law. But, of course, he was justified before he was circumcised (that happens in Genesis 17), thus making it clear that gentiles, too, could be saved without first being circumcised (thank you, Lord!). What, then, of circumcision? “Abraham received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that had already been credited to him through his faith when still uncircumcised” (4.11a). Here again we have, as in John 6.26-7, both a sign and a seal. For John, all Jesus’ miracles were signs, not just physical marvels, but pointers to spiritual truth. But the feeding of the 5,000 was the clinching ‘seal’ that Jesus bore the ‘stamp’ of deity - not just evidence, but proof. Here, the distinction seems to be a bit different. The ‘sign’ is a visible cultural identifier: the Jews are different, they are God’s people and belong to him, and to be circumcised is to make a statement - even at 8 days old! But the ‘seal’ is God’s statement, his covenant stamp imprinted on his people (or at least half of them) to assure them of his covenant faithfulness. If we see baptism as the NT (and unisex) version of circumcision, it is both a sign by the believer to the world that he belongs to Christ, and God’s seal by his Holy Spirit of his ownership.

(iii) 1 Corinthians 9.2

Paul’s third use of ‘sphragis’ is refreshingly simple and straightforward. Just as Timothy was faced by false teachers in Ephesus, so Paul was faced with ‘false apostles’ in Corinth. How were the Corinthians to know who was genuine? Paul’s answer is clear: “Even if I am not an apostle to others, I certainly am to you Corinthians. For, by God’s grace (literally, “in the Lord”) you are the seal of my apostleship” (1 Cor. 9.2). Once again, a seal is an image of God’s sovereignty: had Paul not been “called as an apostle” (1 Cor. 1.1), his mission to Corinth would have been in vain, and his ministry fruitless. But the very fact of the church in Corinth, where Paul “settled for 18 months teaching among them the word of the Lord” (Acts 18.11), was God’s stamp of authenticity on his apostleship. The Corinthians were the answer to their own question.

‘sphragizō’ in Romans 15.28

This leaves just one more instance of Pauline ‘sphragizō’ to look at, in Romans 15.28. This usage has caused commentators and lexicographers some puzzlement. The fact that it is the only occurrence of the verb in the middle, other than 2 Corinthians 1.22, with which we began, seems to me to be significant. In the previous verse, I tried to express the sense of the middle voice by translating: “it is God who has sealed us for himself”. In Romans 15 the context is this: the churches in Macedonia have made a generous collection to relieve the suffering of the impoverished church in Jerusalem, and Paul plans to take this money to them in person, before going on to visit Rome, and then, he hopes, to Spain. John Stott points out that this mission must have been particularly important to Paul, since to go from Corinth (where Romans was written) to Rome via Jerusalem involved an extra 2,000 miles of travel. This is how Paul tells the Roman church of his intentions: “Now I am on my way to Jerusalem to minister to the Christians there, for the churches of Macedonia have been pleased to make a collection for the poor among the Christians there; --- so when I have completed this task, and ‘sealed for myself’ this fruit to them, I will depart for Spain, visiting you on the way” (literally, “through you”, or “via you” - vv.25-6, 28). Paul describes the money as “fruit” since it is the visible expression of the faith of those who have given it so willingly. Maybe this metaphor leads Paul to think of a consignment of literal fruit being exported, which would be ‘sealed’, both as a security measure, to ensure that the cargo was not tampered with, and as an identification of the owner of the goods. Had Paul been sending this precious ‘fruit’ via others, he might well have sealed it in this literal way, to assure the recipients that it had reached them in exactly the same condition as it had left Paul - intact. But it is Paul who is bringing it himself, and it is he who is seeking the assurance that this precious gift has been safely delivered; thus his ministry will have been faithfully discharged, both to those who gave the gift and to those who had now received it.. Perhaps, then, we could translate verse 28: “when I have completed this task, and satisfied myself that this precious gift of money has been safely handed over to them ---”.

The seal “of the Lamb and of the Father”
Revelation 7

There now remain just 7 instances of ‘sealing’, 5 of the verb and 2 of the noun, and it is not altogether surprising that these 7 all occur in Revelation, and are all used in the same sense. 6 of the 7 occur in chapter 7. It is, at first sight, rather confusing that this group of ‘sealings’ comes in the middle of the ‘unsealings’ of the ‘Book with 7 Seals’. It is, therefore, important to note that a seal can signify either secrecy or security. The 7 seals on God's Book of judgement are a powerful symbol of its secrecy, but the ultimate example, perhaps, is John’s unwritten book (Rev. 10.4), since an unwritten book guards its secrets well. Both kinds of seal, however, express the idea of sovereignty: a seal signifies ownership, expressing both the authenticity of the contents and the authority of the owner over them. So, in chapter 5, we see that only Jesus himself, the Lamb who was slain, has the authority to open the book and undo the seals. By the end of chapter 6, 6 of the 7 seals have been removed, and the storm of God’s judgement is unleashed upon a godless world. At the start of chapter 7, 4 angels “at the 4 corners of the earth” are clearly about to inflict further devastation; but before this can happen, another angel “comes up from the East carrying the seal of the living God”, and tells the other 4 “not to harm the land or the sea or the trees until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads”. So 144,000 are thus sealed, 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. Clearly, this seal is to identify those who belong to God, and to protect them from the judgement which is about to afflict the earth. This is made explicit in 9.4: Satan, “the Star fallen from heaven”, is given the key to the abyss (things, as we have seen, are very different in chapter 20), and unleashes a second plague of locusts. But God is still, as always, in control: the locusts are told “only to harm those who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads”. God is sovereign, and so his elect are secure. Further on still, in chapter 14, we meet these 144,000 again, and learn more about the seal on their foreheads. Before, they were still in the world, the church militant; now they stand on Mount Sion with their Saviour, the Lamb of God, the church triumphant. “On their foreheads they had written the name of the Lamb and of the Father” (v.1). We may remember that the Father had given to his Son “the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2.9), so that this seal, that marks the foreheads of God’s elect, is the most powerful and prestigious seal that can be imagined. This wonderful image comes immediately after its antithesis. At the end of chapter 13, the beast who “came up out of the earth --- compels all alike, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive his mark upon their right hand or upon their forehead - the mark of the name of the beast or the number of his name” (vv.11,16-17). The word for ‘mark’ here is ‘charagma’, literally an ‘engraving’: this mark is not a seal but a scar. This reminds us, once again, that the gospel challenge is binary: “no man can serve two masters” (Matt. 6.24): either he will be sealed with the name of his Saviour, or he will be branded with the mark of the beast. There is no ‘third way’.

3. ‘OPEN’

‘anoigō’, ‘dianoigō’, ‘anoixis’

Every seal comes with a time-limit attached, explicitly or implicitly. A sealed letter is intended to be read, a sealed consignment of merchandise is intended to be claimed by its purchaser - just as an engagement-ring should lead to a marriage. Even a sealed tomb has a time-limit: “Seal the tomb until the third day”, the Jewish authorities ask Pilate; and Satan’s abyss is to be sealed for a thousand years. We could, indeed rewrite Jesus’ saying, one of the key texts for an understanding of ‘mystery’, “there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed” (Matt. 10.26, Mark 4.22, Luke 8.17, 12.2) as “there is nothing sealed that will not be opened”. Unlike other books of history, bible history can be divided into two kinds, past history and future history. Past history is, as we have seen at length, mystery revealed, an open book; future history is mystery still, a sealed book. When reading Revelation, we need to remember that it contains both kinds of history: John is a time-traveller, the only non-fiction time-traveller in the history of the world. What John experienced as he went up through the “open door” of heaven, (4.1 -what in SF would be called a ‘portal’), was, for him, present reality, but for us it remains in the future, and so remains a mystery. We may speculate about the significance of the vivid imagery in Revelation, and (if we have nothing better to do) about its numerology, but to pontificate is impossible. When, at the start of chapter 5, John sees God’s great book with its 7 seals, the ‘revelation’ is partial, all he can see is “a book in the right hand of the one seated on the throne”. What is it that is “written both on the front and the back” of the book? John may speculate that it must be something important, but it remains a mystery - which, as we have seen, can be defined as ‘partial revelation’ - until, progressively, the seals are removed. For John, the history of the last days and of God’s judgement on the world is now ‘an open book’, but for us, though we now know more than we did, it remains a mystery, still sealed 7-fold.

This leads us on to our final word-study, and so to the end of ‘mystery’. To ‘open’ in Greek is, most commonly, ‘anoigō’, used 78 times in the NT. There is also a compound verb, ‘dianoigō’, literally ‘to open [a way] through’, which is used 8 times. In addition, there is a single instance of the abstract noun ‘anoixis’, an ‘opening’. A parcel that is ‘opened’ is no longer a mystery (e.g. a Christmas present), or, at least, less of a mystery than it was (e.g. a Christmas present requiring ‘simple home assembly). We have already seen how the book of God’s judgement is ‘opened’ as its 7 seals are progressively removed; the verb ‘anoigō’ is used 8 times in this context between Revelation 5.1 and 8.1; in each case, the object of the verb, or its subject when used in the passive, is the noun ‘sphragis’, but on another 9 occasions in the NT the object is the book itself, ‘biblion’. If to these we add ‘an opened door’ (‘thura’, 24 times), ‘opened eyes’ (‘ophthalmoi’, 15 times), ‘an open mouth’ (‘stoma’, 12 times) and ‘the heavens opened’ (‘ouranoi’, 6 times), we have covered the great majority of the ‘openings’ in the NT. In fact, we can use ‘anoigō’ and its 2 derivatives to trace a ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ which all Christians take on their journey, like Bunyan’s pilgrim, from ‘the City of Destruction’ to ‘the Celestial City’.

Openings: a Pilgrim’s Progress
(i) an open book
Luke 4.17, 24.27, 31, 45

We will begin with the ‘open book’, partly because that is where we had got to, and partly because it frames this ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ - and also frames Luke’s account of Jesus’ teaching ministry. In his gospel, this ministry begins in Nazareth on the Sabbath, when, “as his custom was”, he goes to the synagogue. “He stood up to read. And there was handed to him the Book of the prophet Isaiah; he opened the book, and found ---” chapter 61. 1-2. After reading it, he said: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”. (4.16-21) The reader of the prophecy was himself its fulfilment; we might call this reading ‘the first lesson’! As the book was opened, so was the mystery of the prophecy revealed. I have to point out that not all the MSS use the verb ‘anoigō’ here, some preferring ‘anaptussō’, to ‘unroll’ a scroll, a verb (like its uncompounded version, ‘ptusso’, to ‘roll up’) found in the NT only in this passage. I like to think, however, that Luke wrote ‘anoigō’ here since it points more explicitly the parallel between Jesus’ first recorded teaching in his gospel and his final teaching of his disciples in chapter 24. Three times in this chapter Luke uses the compound verb ‘dianoigō’, as, first to the two disciples on the Emmaus road, and then to all the disciples in the upper room, he shows how OT prophecy, not just in Isaiah this time, but “beginning with Moses and all the prophets” (v.27), had been fulfilled in him. The first ‘dianoigō’ (v.31) describes the ‘opening’ of the eyes of the two disciples, who previously had not recognised Jesus; but in the next verse they say to each other: “were not our hearts burning within us as --- he was opening up the scriptures to us?” The third use comes after he has given the same bible-study to all the disciples, which Luke describes thus: “then he opened up their minds to understand the scriptures” (v.45). As we have seen many times already, the ‘mystery of the gospel’ has been fully revealed; the jumbled jigsaw of OT prophecy has come together in the perfect picture of Christ, the “express image” of his Father (Heb. 1.3).The gospel, unlike the mystery religions of the time, is now an open secret, open to all who will listen and respond, but a secret still until the opened book of scripture is matched with an opened mind.

(ii) an opened womb
Ex 12.2,12,15, Luke 2.23

Of the 8 uses of ‘dianoigō’ in the NT, 7 are by Luke (4 in the gospel, 3 in Acts - the 8th is in Mark). Maybe Luke found this compound verb in the LXX version of Exodus 13, where it occurs 3 times, and from which he quotes in (Luke) 2.23: “Every male who opens the womb will be called holy to the Lord”. Luke here is explaining why Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to “present him to the Lord”. This reminds us that, physically, Jesus’ birth was entirely natural, and that Mary, presumably, experienced the pains of childbirth just like every other mother in history; only the conception was a miracle. Spiritually, however, Jesus’ birth was unique: he was born sinless, while every other baby, boy or girl, born into this world is born in sin. Only through the death of the one who was born sinless and lived without sin can any of us be saved from the sin in which we were born and in which we have lived ever since.

(iii) an open door for the gospel
Acts 14.27, 1 Corinthians 16.9, 2 Corinthians 2.12, Col 4.3

The ‘opened womb’, then, reminds us that we are born in ‘the city of destruction’, while the ‘open book’ of the gospel points to the way of escape to the Celestial City. But how are we to hear of this good news, and so find this way of escape ? “How will they hear without a preacher?” Paul asks (Rom. 10.4); “and how are they to preach unless they are sent out” (‘apostled’ again, v.15). This requires two more ‘openings’. First, God must “open a door of faith”. When Paul and Barnabas report back to their home church in Antioch, after their first missionary journey, they told them “what great things God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith for the gentiles” (Acts 14.27). Evidence that this image of the ‘open door’ is Pauline in origin rather than Lukan is provided by its 3 occurrences in the epistles. Paul tells the Corinthians that “I am staying in Ephesus until Pentecost, because a great and effective door has been opened for me” (1 Cor. 16.9); and he uses the same image in his second letter to them (2.12), describing his visit to Troas: “When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, a door had been opened for me in the Lord”. So it is that when, now in prison, he writes to the Colossians (4.3) he asks them to pray, not that his prison door may be opened to free him, but that “the Lord would open a door for me to speak the mystery of Christ”. Unless God is at work opening doors, the mystery of the gospel will remain a mystery still to those who have not been saved.


(iv) an open mouth to proclaim the gospel
(a) Philip and the Ethiopian
Matthew 5.2, Acts 8.35

The other ‘opening’ is complementary to God’s opening of the door: in the work of evangelism, God and man work in partnership. When God opens the door, man (inclusive use!) must ‘open his mouth’. As so often, Jesus sets us the example. Matthew begins his account of Jesus’ teaching ministry in chapter 5. Jesus goes up the mountain, sits down, and, as his disciples come to him, he “opens his mouth” and teaches them - and does not close it again for three chapters! The clearest example of the complementarity of God’s opening the door of gospel opportunity and man’s opening his mouth to take it is Philip the deacon in Acts 8. God prepares the way, both in the Ethiopian official, who has an open book in front of him as he rides in his chariot, and in Philip,who is told by an angel to “take the road to Gaza”(v.26), and is then told by the Spirit to hitch a lift on the Ethiopian’s chariot (v.29 - paraphrased!). Once again, the open book is the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, foretelling the trial and execution of the Suffering Servant, the Christ: “As a sheep is led to its slaughter, and a lamb in the presence of its shearers is speechless, so he does not open his mouth” (53.7, = Acts 8.32). When the Ethiopian asks him whether the prophet is speaking about himself or about someone else, Philip seizes his opportunity: “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus” (literally, “he evangelised Jesus to him”, v.35). To say that Philip “opened his mouth” is no mere figure of speech: Luke is clearly establishing a contrast with Jesus, who “did not open his mouth” at his ‘trial’. The point he is making, perhaps, is that Jesus’ preaching ministry was over, ended by his arrest and trial; now the preaching of the gospel has been delegated to his disciples: “he has no lips but our lips”.

(b) Peter and Cornelius
Acts 10.34

The same pattern of complementarity is seen again two chapters later in Peter’s visit to Cornelius. The Lord had to open two doors here, sending an angel to Cornelius telling him to open his house to Peter, and sending a vision to Peter to open a door in his Jewish prejudices to prepare him to enter a gentile’s house. While Peter is still pondering this vision, “Cornelius’s messengers arrived and stood at the door” (10.17). Like Paul after him, Peter “was not disobedient to the heavenly vision” (26.19). Before long, he is standing at Cornelius’s door, and Luke twice says that he “went in” (vv. 25,27) - through the door, presumably! Once again, Luke is making a point by this otherwise needless repetition: for a Jew to enter a gentile’s house really was to cross a threshold: Peter had learnt the lesson of his thrice repeated vision (God, too, repeats things to make a point): “what God has declared clean you must not regard as unclean” (10.15). After Cornelius has told him of the angelic visit, Peter “opened his mouth” and preached the gospel (v.34): the gentile church had been inaugurated.

(iv) opened ears
Mark 7.34,36, 4.9,23

Once again, however, it is not enough that the evangelist opens his mouth for the gospel to bear fruit; more ‘openings’ are required, and these are pictured for us by the healing miracles of Jesus’ ministry. Mark’s gospel is the only one to record the healing of a deaf man. Jesus “thrust his fingers into the man’s ears --- and said to him ‘Ephphatha’, which means ‘Be opened’” (7.34 - this is Mark’s use of ‘dianoigō’). Then, Mark says (v.36), “his hearings were opened”. This abstract noun, ‘akoē’, derived from the verb ‘akouō’, to ‘hear’, is used 20 times in the NT, but this is the only instance of its use in the plural. ‘Hearing’ has been a key theme in this gospel; the verb occurs 13 times in chapter 4 alone, 4 of them in the explanation of the parable of the sower. The first three ‘soils’ hear the word of God, but the verb is used in the aorist, indicating just a single action; the good soil, however, “goes on hearing” (present continuous tense, v.24). It is important to remember that, whereas English distinguishes between ‘hearing’ and ‘listening’, Greek has only the single verb, ‘akouō’, to cover both senses. Twice in this chapter Jesus utters the familiar admonition “He that has ears, let him hear” (vv. 9,23); AV, NIV and NEB all repeat ‘hear’ here, but I believe that the sense is better expressed as “he who has ears to hear, let him listen”. So when an evangelist or preacher ‘opens his mouth’ to speak God’s word, we need, like the deaf man in Mark, to have our ‘hearings opened’, so that we really listen.

(v) opened eyes
Matthew 9.30, 20.33, John 9.10.14,17,21,26,30,32

But it is not only ears that need to be opened if the gospel seed is to take root and bear fruit; blind eyes also need to be opened if mystery is to become knowledge - “knowledge of salvation” (Luke 1.77). Matthew records two occasions on which Jesus restored sight to the blind. In chapter 9, two blind men come to Jesus, who asks them: “Do you believe that I can do this?” When they say they do, “Jesus touched their eyes, saying ‘May it be to you according to your faith’; and their eyes were opened” (vv. 28-30). There is a reprise of this miracle at the very end of Jesus’ ministry, his last healing miracle, just before his final entry into Jerusalem. Once again, there are two blind men asking for “mercy”. Jesus asks what they want from him; “Lord, that our eyes may be opened”, they reply. “Jesus had compassion on them, touched their eyes, and immediately they received their sight and followed him” (20.31-4). It was John, though, for whom miracles were not just wonders but signs with a spiritual significance, who uses ‘anoigō’ with ‘opthalmoi’ most often, 7 times in chapter 9 alone (his gospel is almost as full of 7’s as his Revelation). Here there is only one blind man, but he had been blind from birth, so that his darkness was a picture, or sign, not just of sin but of original sin. Right at the end of the chapter, Jesus makes it clear that ‘blindness’ can be more than just a physical handicap: it can be a spiritual death-sentence. “It was for judgement", he says, "that I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, while those who do see may become blind” (v.39). The Pharisees half-see the point: “Surely we are not blind also?” they ask. “If you were blind”, Jesus replies, “you would not be guilty of sin; but because you claim to see, your sin remains [unforgiven]” (vv.39-41). Until our eyes are opened to see ourselves as God sees us - guilty sinners condemned to die - we will never respond in faith to the gospel of grace: self-righteousness is the blackest kind of blindness.
(vi)
[a] An opened heart:
Acts 16.14, 26.17-19, John 5.24
[b] An opened door:
Revelation 3.20

Now comes the crunch. To listen to the gospel and to understand it are necessary steps on the Pilgrim’s Progress to the Celestial City, but in themselves they are not sufficient. The crucial step is the step of faith that takes us over the frontier between death and life, darkness and light. In Paul’s second account of his meeting with Jesus on the Damascus road, he gives him his ‘mission statement’: “I am sending you out (‘apostling you’) to the gentiles”, says Jesus, “so that you may open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light” (Acts 26. 17-18). That this act of ‘turning’ requires an act of faith Jesus has already made clear in John 5.24: “Truly, truly I say to you, the one who listens (present continuous) to my word and believes the one who sent me --- has crossed [the frontier] from death to life”. For this vital step to be taken, two more ‘openings’ are needed, and once again they reflect the complementarity of God’s ‘opening’ with our own ‘opening’. Only once in the NT is ‘anoigō’ used of ‘opening’ the heart (‘kardia’ in Greek). This occurs in Luke’s account of the conversion of Lydia in Philippi: “And there was a woman called Lydia, a God-fearing seller of purple from Thyatira; she was listening (imperfect continuous) [to what we were saying], and the Lord opened her heart to pay heed to Paul’s words” (Acts 16.14). The complementary verse is, of course, the most famous ‘opening’ in scripture, Revelation 3.20. Here, too, ‘hearing’ is a necessary but not sufficient step to salvation: “Look, here I am, standing at the door and knocking”, says the risen, ascended and glorified Jesus; “if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come into [his heart and his life]”. Who is it, then, who opens the door of the human heart to let Jesus in? Is ‘the handle on the inside’, as has so often been observed of Holman Hunt’s painting, ‘The Light of the World’? Or can God, indeed, open someone’s heart, as Luke records of Lydia? Here again we come up against the seemingly irreconcilable contradiction between free will and election. This ‘contradiction’ is indeed a mystery (though never explicitly so described in the NT) which will only be resolved in the light of eternity, when “there will be no more time”, and “the mystery of God will be completed” (Rev. 10.7) Intellectually we can never solve this puzzle this side of eternity, but perhaps an illustration will help. Imagine a bank-vault containing a stack of gold bullion - this may require considerable imagination, since I suspect that most people have never set eyes on a stack of gold bullion (except, perhaps, in heist movies). The vault is, of course, securely locked, and there are two key-holders, but neither key-holder on his own can open the vault: both must act in concert before access can be gained to the treasure. So it is with the human heart. God has given us the key of free will, so that to ‘open the door’ and invite Jesus into our hearts is our own decision. But God, who is sovereign, also holds a key - the Master key, perhaps, and unless he too ‘opens our heart’, as he did Lydia’s, the door will remain closed. The two openings are complementary; both keys are needed.
(vii)
[a] giving: opened treasures
Matthew 2.11, 7.8, Luke 11.10
[b] getting: an opened door
Luke 12.21">Matthew 6.19-21, 13.44, 19.21,

The opened door, then, and the opened heart mark the beginning of the Christian life, eternal life. Our next two openings are also complementary, expressing the two central elements of living for Jesus, and with Jesus. The first is provided by the Magi at the nativity: Matthew records (2.11) that “coming into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and falling to their knees they worshipped him, and opening their treasures they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh”. In this lovely action is pictured one half of the Christian life, the act of giving our ‘treasures’ to Jesus. The complement of this is what we receive from God, and here the picture is, once again, of an opened door: “Ask, and it will be given to you, seek, and you will find, knock, and [the door] will be opened for you; for every one who asks, receives, the one who seeks, finds, and to the one who knocks, [the door] will be opened” (Matt. 7.7-8, Luke 11. 9-10). Once we have taken the decisive step from death to life by ‘opening the door’ to Jesus, we find that we have, in the time-honoured phrase (if not always honoured in practice) a boss ‘whose door is always open’ for us. As we give our ‘treasures’, such as they are, to God, so the whole treasure-house of his riches is opened to us in Christ - as Paul tells us in Colossians 2.2-3. All we have to do is ASK - Ask, Seek, Knock, a truly scriptural acronym! It almost works in Greek as well: ‘ask’ is ‘aitō’ and ‘knock’ is ‘krouō’; but to ‘seek’ is ‘zētō’ - but since a Greek zeta should really be pronounced ‘sd-’, we might stretch a point: ‘ASdK’!. ‘Giving’ and ‘getting’, then, are at the heart of the Christian life; but it is important to recognise that what we get from God comes first: grace. The Christian life only begins when we receive God’s wonderful gift of grace in Christ, who not only takes our sin upon himself, but also clothes us in the robe of his sinless righteousness, so that, in Wesley’s words, “bold I approach the throne of grace”, bold because, in the words of a more recent writer, I am arrayed “in royal robes I don’t deserve”. All the treasures that we can offer him in response are merely an inadequate expression of gratitude: we do not give to God in order to get, but because we have already got. The Christian life can only be lived in Christ’s strength; the more we ASK, the more he gives us, and the more we want to give him in return: grace and gratitude, the two-stroke engine which powers us along the path to the Celestial City.

[a] opened treasure:
‘thesauros’, ‘thesaurizo’

Let us look first, then, at the ‘treasures’ which the Magi opened for the infant Jesus. The Greek word for ‘treasure’ has, thanks to Mr. Roget and his ‘Thesaurus’, entered the English language - though its ending is ‘-os’ in Greek - a ‘treasury’ of words. This noun is used 17 times in the NT, 14 of them in the gospels; in addition, there is a verb, ‘thesaurizo’, to ‘store up treasure’, used 8 times. The Magi gave Jesus ‘gold and frankincense and myrrh’; we are probably, and sadly, lacking in all three commodities (the gold bullion in the bank vault was strictly metaphorical!). The well known hymn, “O worship the Lord”, also gets metaphorical: “With gold of obedience and incense of lowliness, kneel and adore him: the Lord is his name”. (J.B.Monsell - ‘myrrh’ seems to have defeated him!) When we ask Jesus into our lives, he comes in not just as friend but as Master, so that ‘obedience’ is (or should be) implicit in an ‘opened door’. Similarly, we ask him in because we know that, on our own, we are not good enough for God, so that the ‘opened door’ also implies lowliness, or humility. We may well start the Christian life as we mean to go on, in obedience and humility, but do we go on in the Christian life as we meant to when we started? The ‘gold of obedience’ and the ‘incense of lowliness’ are gifts we need to offer Jesus not just at Christmas but on all the other 364 (or -5) days of the year as well. Nor does the metaphorical exclude the literal. Gold bullion may be in short supply, but most, if not all, of us have treasures of money or property that we need to see as his treasures on loan to us. Of the 25 combined instances in the NT of ‘thesauros’ and ‘thesaurizo’, 5 occur in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells us: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, but store up treasures in heaven; for where your treasure is, there too will your heart be” (Matt. 6.19-21). Three more instances occur in the three graphic accounts of Jesus’ meeting with the ‘rich young ruler’ (‘rich’ in all 3 synoptics, ‘young’ in Matthew, and a ‘ruler’ in Luke). Jesus tells him: “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matt. 19.21, Mark 10.21, Luke18.22). This antithesis between ‘treasure on earth’ and ‘treasure in heaven’ is emphasised again, in parable this time, by Jesus’ story of the rich fool in Luke’s gospel. After a bumper crop, this rich landowner decided to build bigger barns to store his grain, and then “to eat, drink and have a good time”, since “he had lots of goods stored up for many years” - but that very night he died. “You fool”, God said to him. The point of the story is pithily summed up in 12.21 (not found in all the MSS, but implicit in the parable anyway): “Thus it is for someone who stores up treasure for himself, but is not rich towards God”. He was indeed a fool, not only theologically ignorant, but also economically illiterate, investing all his treasure in time - “a good time” - rather than in eternity, in mammon rather than with God. Hear, by contrast, the words of the young American missionary and martyr, killed by those he came to save, Jim Elliott: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose”. Another contrast is provided by the man in another of Jesus’ parables, who also was ‘no fool’: he found treasure buried in a field, and was so overjoyed that he went and sold all that he had to buy the field - and so obtain the treasure. That, said Jesus, is a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven and its treasure (Matt. 13.44). Paul only uses ‘thesauros’ twice, but the two verses taken together combine to give us a commentary on this short parable. The treasure worth selling everything for is, says Paul, “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ --- in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2 Cor. 4.6, Col. 2.3); but in the former verse he goes on to point out (if we needed reminding) that “we have this treasure in earthenware jars” - physically frangible and spiritually fallible. The Christian life is the journey (or ‘pilgrimage’) between the discovery of the treasure hidden in the earth, the Jesus of history whose human body was broken for us on the cross, and the final reward of the treasure waiting for us in heaven, Jesus himself, risen, ascended, glorified.

The opened treasures of the Magi, then, remind us that, out of gratitude, we need to offer all our treasures to Christ - all that we have and all that we are; and that we need to make this offering not just as an initial act of commitment, but in daily humble surrender to his will and his service - “the gold of obedience and incense of lowliness”. Often the truest - and the sharpest - diagnosis of the reasons for our stumblingly slow progress as pilgrims is this well known saying - it should be even better known than it is: “The problem is not that you need more of the Holy Spirit, it is that the Holy Spirit needs more of you.” A woman who goes to a beautician and offers him, or her, only a lock of her hair to work with is unlikely to come out looking any more beautiful than when she went in. I don’t think I have ever heard God compared to a stockbroker - stockbrokers are not usually held up as role-models in sermons. But, like a stockbroker, God can only invest for us in the bank of heaven as much of our ‘treasure’ as we entrust to him.

[b] an open door: ‘the key of promise’
James 4.2, 2 Peter 1.4

“Knock, and [the door] will be opened to you” (Matt. 7.7, Luke 11.9). Of all that stream of ‘amazing grace’ which God in his goodness pours out on us, this promise is, perhaps, the most amazing. He promises us that at any time of the day or night we can knock on his door and be sure that he will invite us into his presence - the presence of the Creator of the universe, unimaginably glorious and holy, a presence which should incinerate us in an instant, but which, because we come in Jesus’ name, is peace and joy and wonder. Another possible diagnosis of our faltering footsteps in our ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ is found in the typically blunt words of James: “You do not have because you do not ask” (4.2). The hymn-writer put the same truth more metrically:
Oh what peace we often forfeit, oh what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer” (J.Scriven)
God’s great promises usually come with conditions attached. Here, we have a threefold promise and a threefold condition: “Ask, seek, knock”, and all three verbs in both Matthew and Luke are in the present continuous imperative: God’s promises are to those who persist in asking and seeking and knocking. This verse is just one of many “great and precious promises” (2 Peter 1.4) which God has given us in his word: we need, more often, to take him at his word. Bunyan, in the original ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, allegorises this privilege as ‘the Key of Promise’, which is one of the most important pieces of equipment Christian is given to arm himself for his journey. At a low point in his progress he is captured by Giant Despair and imprisoned in Doubting Castle - a dark experience which many good pilgrims have suffered at one time or another. Vaughan Williams was not a Christian, but in his operatic version of Bunyan’s tale the scene of Pilgrim’s imprisonment (Vaughan Williams calls his hero ‘Pilgrim’ rather than ‘Christian’ as in Bunyan) is, for me, the most moving of all. He sings an agonised lament, wondering why God, as it seems, has deserted him. Then, in a moment, the mood of the music changes as he sings: “Oh fool that I am! In my bosom lies the key of promise. Wherefore should I lie in bondage when I might walk at liberty on the King’s highway? The key, the way of freedom! Open to me the gates of righteousness, I will go in to them." And then the great, striding hymn-tune ‘York’ is heard again, the leitmotif of ‘the King’s highway’. Christians, too, can be ‘fools’ by forgetting to claim all the riches of God’s grace which he promises to us. Don’t forget the ‘Key of Promise’ - don’t leave home without it!

[c] opened doors: three escapes from prison
1. the Apostles:
Acts 5.17-20

It is not surprising that Bunyan should include a prison escape in his ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, since 3 such miraculous events are recorded in Acts. These 3 incidents between them provide 7 of the 8 occasions in Acts when Luke refers to ‘open doors’ - the 8th is the ‘open door of faith’ that we have already looked at. The first occurs in chapter 5, when the apostles have been arrested and put in prison. “During the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison and led them out”, telling them to continue preaching and teaching in the Temple (19-20). The next day a plenary session of the Sanhedrin prepares to put them on trial. But the officers sent to fetch them return empty-handed, and report: “We found the prison shut in all safety, but when we opened the doors, we found no one inside” (v.23). The mention of ‘safety’ here (‘asphaleia’ in Greek) is an interesting echo of the plea of the Jewish authorities to Pilate to “make [Jesus’] tomb safe” by sealing it (Matt. 27.64), a passage we looked at earlier. The ‘security’ measures taken by the Jews to keep the apostles in prison were just as ineffective as their efforts to keep Jesus in his tomb.

2..Peter: Acts 12. 5-17

Seven chapters later, Peter is imprisoned by Herod. Maybe memories of the previous jail-break linger, because far more stringent ‘security’ measures are employed: he was guarded by 16 soldiers, and “was sleeping between two of them, bound by two chains”, when, “behold! an angel of the Lord stood by him” (12.6-7). Was this the same angel who had freed the apostles back in chapter 5 - God’s jail-break specialist? He, too, has plenty to say, telling Peter to get up and get dressed, then leading him out from the inmost part of the prison to the outer, iron door, giving onto the city street; this door “opened automatically for them” (the Greek word here is, indeed, ‘automatē’, the first automatic door in recorded history!). Peter, still, it seems, half asleep, cannot really believe what has happened, but then, “pulling himself together, he went to the house of Mary, mother of Mark” (v.16), where a prayer meeting was taking place for his release. There follows a delightfully comic vignette, which Luke narrates in his usual deadpan way, but with, I am sure, a smile hovering on his lips as he writes. Peter knocks on the door. This is, once again, the verb ‘krouō’; it is used 9 times in the NT, but this is the only instance of a literal knocking on a real door; the others occur in metaphor or parable. The maid, Rhoda (this one incident has preserved her name for posterity ahead of all the other faithful Christians in Jerusalem at the time) recognises his voice, but, instead of letting him in, rushes, in her joy, to tell all the others. This door is not automatic, so Peter is left, still knocking, outside. How ironic! The door of the prison opened miraculously to let him out, but now the door of his own house-church will not open to let him in. The assembled disciples have had enough faith to pray for Peter’s release, but now do not have enough to believe that their prayers have been miraculously answered: they think that Rhoda “is mad”. Eventually, however, they do ‘open the door’, and are ‘ecstatic’ to see that it is, indeed, Peter standing there (v.16).

‘knocking at the door’

Revelation 3.20, John 11.11, Acts 7.60, John 20.19,26, Matthew 18.20
‘koimōmai’

Before we move on to the third prison escape in Acts, it might be instructive to link this incident with Revelation 3.20. The image of Jesus “standing at the door and knocking” echoes Peter’s situation here. This picture is often used as an invitation to non-Christians to take a step of faith - to ask Jesus into the house of their lives, and to start walking with him; this is how I used it a little earlier, as an ‘opened door’ which marked the start of the pilgrim’s progress. But in its context as a part of Jesus’ ‘letter’ to the church of Laodicea, it is an invitation addressed to Christians. Laodicea was ‘lukewarm’ in its discipleship, proud and self-satisfied, a reminder to all of us of the times when we think we can get along quite happily in our lives, even our ‘Christian’ lives, without letting Jesus in to share them, and control them. The risen Christ, who has appeared to John in his vision in all his resurrection glory in chapter 1 (vv. 13-16), now represents himself as standing humbly outside the door of our busy, worldly lives, knocking to be let in, just as Peter had to go on knocking to be let in. Peter, too, had just experienced a sort of resurrection. He was due to be executed the next day, and the word used to describe his “sleeping” in verse 6 is not the more usual ‘katheudō’, but ‘koimōmai’ (which gives us ‘cemetery’). This verb is used 18 times in the NT, and only on two other occasions does it refer simply to ‘sleeping’ rather than ‘sleeping the sleep of death’ (which is what people in a ‘cemetery’ are doing). It is the word Jesus uses to tell his disciples that “Lazarus is dead” (John 11.11), and the word Luke uses of the death of Stephen (Acts 7.60). Here, then, it seems that Luke is implying that Peter is already as good as dead, that his prison is a sort of tomb, and that his miraculous release is an echo of Jesus’ release from the tomb and resurrection into glorious new life. Just as Jesus describes himself as waiting outside the door of his own church at Laodicea to be let in, so Peter is left standing outside the door of the house-church that is praying for him. On the first two Sundays of Christian history, Easter Day and the Sunday after, Jesus “stood in the midst” of his church, his disciples, even though “the doors were shut” (John 20.19, 26 - 7 verses apart!). Ever since, it seems, when his church gathers together, Jesus waits to be invited in; we need to be sure that we are, indeed, meeting “in his name” before we can claim the wonderful promise of Matthew 18.20 - another one to add to the key-ring. Every time Christians meet together, whether on the first day of the week or on any other, we need to make sure that we have not left the risen Jesus outside the door knocking, but rather invite him in to take his rightful place, “standing in the midst”.

3. Paul and Silas: Acts 16.22-34
‘to xulon’
Deut 21.22-3, 1 Peter 2.24, Galatians 2.19, Matthew 28.2

Incidents in Peter’s ministry in the first half of Acts are often echoed by similar incidents in Paul’s ministry in the second half. Peter’s imprisonment in Jerusalem, with its ‘opened doors’, provides one of the clearest examples of this narrative structure, for Paul’s imprisonment in Philippi in chapter 16 echoes it in a number of details. We will begin with the least obvious, only observable in the Greek text, and, perhaps, the most profound. We have seen how Luke describes Peter as ‘sleeping’, but uses ‘koimōmai’ to do so, a word which usually refers to the sleep of death., so that his escape from prison can be seen as a kind of resurrection. Similarly, in chapter 16 (v.24) when Paul and Silas are imprisoned, Luke describes how the jailer “made their feet secure into the stocks”. This seems unremarkable until one looks at the Greek word translated (in AV and NIV) as ‘the stocks’: ‘to xulon’, literally, ‘the wood’ (‘xulon’ gives us the ‘xylophone’). This word occurs 20 times in the NT; 5 of these refer to the ‘cudgels’ or ‘staves’ carried by the soldiers arresting Jesus in Gethsemane. But here in Acts, the other 3 occurrences of ‘xulon’ refer to the ‘tree’ on which Jesus was crucified. The OT rationale for referring to the cross as a ‘tree’ is quoted in Galatians 3.13: “[If someone is sentenced to death for some sin, and he is killed, and you hang him on a tree, his body must not sleep (‘koimōmai’) on the tree, but you must bury it in a tomb that very day, because] every one who hangs on a tree is cursed by God” (Deut. 21. [22]-23, LXX). So to call the cross a ‘tree’ (as Peter does - 1 Peter 2.24, the 5th instance of this usage in the NT) is profoundly theological: it implies that on the cross Jesus came under God’s curse, not because of his own sins, but for ours. By contrast, when we get to the Book of Revelation, 5 of the (inevitably) 7 occurrences of ‘xulon’ refer, not to the cross, the tree of death, but to “the tree of life”. Of these 5, 4 are found in the last chapter of the bible, reminding us that in the second chapter of the bible “the tree of life” was found “in the middle of the garden”, and that in the next chapter Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden so they should not be able to “take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever” (3.22). In Acts, however, and for Luke, ‘to xulon’ is ‘the cross’, and maybe here he is implying that Paul’s imprisonment in the stocks was a kind of crucifixion. Indeed, Paul himself says in that same letter to the Galatians in which he quotes Deuteronomy, “I have been crucified with Christ” (2.19). So for Paul, too, his release was a kind of resurrection, marked, just like Jesus’ resurrection, by “a great earthquake” (Matt. 28.2 - ‘megas seismos’ in Greek, just as in Acts 16.26). I must admit that I was a bit surprised to find ‘koimōmai’ in the Deuteronomy passage, since it seems an unlikely way to describe a dead body hanging on a tree all night; but perhaps I should not have been surprised, for such verbal links between related passages seem to crop up the more carefully and closely one studies the language of scripture.

‘asphalizō’
Matthew 27.64-6

The ‘great earthquake’ is not the only link between the resurrection of Jesus and the jail-break of Paul and Silas: there is another, which also echoes the first imprisonment, of the apostles in Acts 5. Once again, neither AV nor NIV makes this point apparent. Having given them a good beating, the authorities in Philippi “threw them into prison, instructing the jailer to guard them securely (‘asphalēs’); he, receiving this instruction, threw them into the innermost prison and made their feet secure (‘asphalizō’) in[to] the stocks” (16.23-4). Luke is making the point that the jailer carried out his instructions (almost!) to the letter. But, if he has read Mathew’s gospel, he is also echoing his account of the burial of Jesus, which we visited earlier. The basic adjective ‘asphalēs’, ‘safe’, has three other forms that occur in the NT: the adverb ‘asphalēs’, ‘safely (as in v.23); the noun ‘asphaleia’, ‘safety’ (the officers in chapter 5 reported that they had found the prison “locked in all safety”, v.23); and the verb ‘asphalizō’, to ‘make safe’. This verb occurs only here and three times in quick succession in Matthew 27, when the Jewish authorities ask Pilate to ‘make safe’ Jesus’ tomb, Pilate tells them to ‘make it safe’, and Matthew records (maybe with an ironic smile) that they ‘made it safe’ (vv. 64-66). Both Matthew and Luke are, surely, implying that, when God is at work, it is only God’s faithful servants who are truly safe and secure.

the 3 escapes linked

This is the one feature that links just the first and the third escape from prison; there are two features that link all three. Most obvious, and least surprising, is that all three occurred at night. Also, more significantly, all three lead to a renewed proclamation of the gospel - and, of course, to the consternation of the authorities. Otherwise, the links seem designed by Luke to create an increasing sense of the severity of the situation. In chapter 5, the Jews “laid their hands on the apostles and placed them in the public prison” (v.18); in chapter 12, Herod, after he had laid his hands on some of the church, executing James the brother of John, “he arrested Peter and placed him in prison” (vv.1,4); but, as we have seen, in Philippi, the authorities beat Paul and Silas and “threw them into prison - and the jailer, having seen what was expected of him, “threw them into the inner prison” (vv.23-4, ‘ballō’ in both cases). This marks another intensification: in chapter 5, the apostles were just “in prison”, while Peter, and then Paul and Silas, were in “the inmost prison”, the latter explicitly, the former by implication, since he had to make his way out through “the first prison” and then “the second prison” before he reached the outside door (v.10). The first two escapes are effected by “an angel of the Lord”, but the third by “a great earthquake”. The apostles in chapter 5 seem just to have been put in prison, while Peter was chained by the hand to two soldiers, and Paul and Silas had their feet ‘secured’ in the stocks.

1 Corinthians 10.13

While most of these linguistic echoes simply show the elaborate detail in which Luke has structured his narrative, this trio of jail-breaks collectively provides us - courtesy of Bunyan, perhaps - with a wonderful picture of the liberation we can experience from the doubts and disappointments and failures that so often seem to close in on us like prison walls. God allows us to be tested and tempted in all sorts of ways during our long pilgrimage to the Celestial City, but, he promises, he will always provide “a way out” (‘ekbasis’ in Greek - ‘an escape-route’ would be a more vivid translation) “so that we may have the strength to endure” (1 Cor. 10.13). The key to that escape-route is ‘the key of promise’, the many wonderful promises of God in scripture which, as Paul says, “in Christ are always ‘yes’” (2 Cor. 1.20). One of the most wonderful of these is that, if we knock - and go on knocking (present continuous), “the door will be opened for us”. Even in our darkest moments - especially, perhaps, in our darkest moments - if we are ‘in Christ’, we can be sure that the door into God’s presence will be opened to us; and the open door into God’s presence is the open door out of our prison. But the ‘knocking’ is important: before we barge in, we need to remind ourselves what a mind-blowing privilege it is to be admitted into the presence of an awesomely holy God, a privilege that only comes to us ‘in Christ’.

(viii) a Christian’s death
[a] opened tombs
Matthew 27.52

These two ‘openings’, then, the ‘opened treasures’ and the ‘opened doors’, express two vital and complementary features of the Christian life: our giving of ourselves, all that we have and all that we are, to God, initially in saving faith, then, daily, in living faith; and God’s giving of himself to us, initially in Jesus’ death for us, and daily in the life of his Spirit in us. Our next two ‘openings’ are also complementary, but they refer not to the Christian life, but to a Christian’s death - in Bunyan’s imagery, the crossing of the river. Our first ‘opening’ comes in a remarkable sequence of events recorded by Matthew, which follow immediately after Jesus, on the cross, had “let go of his spirit”, or, as we would be more likely to say, “breathed his last” (27.50). There follows a breathless sentence, 3 verses long (51-3), containing 6 ‘and’s (‘kai’ in Greek). The whole sentence is introduced by ‘idou’ ‘behold!’ (AV - all alternatives are inadequate); this is one of Matthew’s favourite words - the equivalent, perhaps, of the teacher’s ‘pay attention at the back there!’. It introduces some development which he particularly wishes us to take notice of, and take in, and the fact that there are 62 ‘idou’s in his gospel (4 more than in Luke!) indicates how excited he is by the good news he has to tell. Here, the first part of the good news is that “the veil of the Temple was split in two from top to bottom”: the door into God’s presence was now open to all believers, as we have just seen. But this (implicit) opening is quickly followed by an explicit one: “--- and the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep (‘koimōmai’ again) were raised ---” (v.52). For the Christian, the tomb is not a dead-end, a final resting-place, but just a waiting-room, or a ‘dormitory’ (the Latin equivalent of a ‘cemetery’), where the dead ‘sleep’ until woken by their alarm - the ‘last trumpet’! Michael Green, in his BST commentary (p.304) draws out the significance of this event well: “Because of that crucifixion which Matthew has just recorded, and the resurrection to which he will now turn, his readers may look even death in the face with equanimity. The gates of the tomb, locked since the primal disobedience of the first couple, have been burst open by Jesus’ death and resurrection.”

[b] the heavens opened
Acts 7.56

But just as, in Acts 12, Peter needed two ‘opened doors’ before he was home free, the door of the prison to let him out and the door of the house-church to let him in, so the open tomb needs to be followed by another opening. For this, we need to turn to the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7. At the end of his long sermon, or history lesson, to the Sanhedrin (2-53), he “gazed into the heavens and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said: ‘Behold! (‘idou’ again) I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (vv.55-6). Paul tells the Ephesians that God, after raising Jesus from the dead, “sat him down at his right hand” (1,20), and then tells the Colossians that the risen Christ is still “seated at the right hand of God” (3.1); so it seems that Jesus has stood up to welcome Stephen into heaven, his faithful servant, the first martyr. This is one of the 8 instances where the compound verb ‘dianoigō’ is used, to ‘open a way through’, implying that there are obstacles to be removed before an opening can be achieved. In this context, of course, the barrier that must be removed and the blockage that must be washed away is our own sinfulness, which, as it were, triggers all the alarm-bells of heaven so that the gates close against us. How can sinners enter the presence of an utterly holy God? It is, of course, Jesus who has “opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers”, as the ‘Te Deum’ so simply expresses it; not by de-activating the alarm, for heaven is still only open to the sinless, but by bearing our sin and taking it away from us: heaven’s sin-detectors will make not a murmur as we pass through the gates.

Closed doors: two parables
‘kleiō’,‘apokleiō’
Gen 7.10, Matthew 25.10, Luke 13.25

“The Kingdom of Heaven open to all believers” is, perhaps, as good a summary as any of the gospel: it is, indeed, good news! But it is salutary to remember that there are two sides to the gospel coin: on one side, the glorious promise of God’s grace and eternal life with Christ; but on the other, the awesome warning of a heaven closed to all who do not belong to Christ. It is possible that when the composer of the ‘Te Deum’ wrote these words he had in mind Jesus’ stern rebuke to the scribes and Pharisees, but chose instead to accentuate the positive. In Matthew 13, Jesus utters 7 “woes” against the Jewish religious leaders of his day (there is an eighth in v. 14, but this is omitted from the UBS text). The first of these reads: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you close the Kingdom of Heaven in the face of all men” (v.13). This introduces us to the verb ‘kleiō’, to ‘close’, from which the noun ‘kleis’ is derived, a ‘key’: it is interesting that a Greek key is a ‘closer’ rather than an ‘opener’. Both noun and verb occur together in a passage we looked at earlier, Revelation 20. 1-3. John saw “an angel descending from heaven holding a key” who seized Satan and “threw him into the abyss and closed it”. We also saw earlier that the first two meetings of the post-resurrection church were held behind “closed doors” (John 20. 19, 26), but that this did not keep Jesus out, for he came and “stood in the midst”. The very first ‘closing’ in scripture is performed by God himself, and is a perfect illustration of both sides of the gospel coin, his grace and his wrath. In Genesis 7.10 the great flood begins, and Noah and his family and all the other livestock he had gathered enter the ark; then “God closed the ark outside them” (LXX, literally). This closed door ensured that Noah and his family would be kept safe through the storm and flood; but it also ensured that no one else could get in to this ‘lifeboat’, and so they were all left to face God’s judgement unprotected. This closed door, in effect, shut in those who were to be saved, but shut out everyone else. This warning is expressed in two interestingly, but not obviously, parallel passages in Matthew and Luke. The first is in Matthew’s parable of the ten bridesmaids. The five foolish ones, who had not brought enough oil to keep their lamps burning, were caught unawares when the bridegroom finally arrived “in the middle of the night”; they had to go off to the shops to buy some more. Meanwhile, the bridegroom and the other five bridesmaids “went in to the wedding feast - and the door was shut” (25.10). So, when the other five returned, they were met by a closed door. “Lord! Lord!” they cried, “Open [the door] for us”. The Lord’s reply contains perhaps the most chilling words in scripture: “Truly I say to you, I do not know you” (vv. 11-12). Luke confronts us with a similarly stark picture, but from a different starting point. Jesus is asked (13.23), “Lord, are there only a few who are to be saved?” He replies: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door. I tell you, many will seek to get in, but will not be able to. The moment will come when the Master of the house gets up and locks the door shut (this is the compound verb ‘apokleiō’, even more decisive than the simple verb); then you, standing outside, will begin to knock on the door saying “Lord, open [the door] for us”. But he will answer you: “I do not know you, or where you are from” (vv.24-5). Once again, the imagery here reminds us of Revelation 3.20, and once again we are confronted by a simple, but crucial, 'either/or' choice: there is no ‘middle way’. Either we hear Jesus knocking for admission into our lives, and invite him in to take control of them, so that when we, as it were, knock on the gate of heaven he invites us in; or we refuse to respond to his knocking, and leave him standing outside our lives, so that, eventually, the tables are turned when we knock in vain on the door of heaven, only to hear those devastating words: “I never knew you”.

(ix) open books
Revelation 20.11-15

Our brief ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ began with an ‘open book’, the gospel whose truths in the OT were for long ages veiled in picture and prophecy, but which in the NT was revealed in all its saving glory. It is fitting, then, that ‘open books’ conclude this journey to the Celestial City. We have looked at these two ‘openings’ already, so here we need no more than a brief reprise. Once again, these two ‘openings’ complement each other, and, once again, they present us with the ‘either/or’ challenge of the gospel. The latter half of Revelation 20 describes the last day of history, Judgement Day. The dead, “great and small” (“there is no distinction”, says Paul: “all have sinned” - Romans 3.22-3) stood before God’s throne, and “books were opened, and another book was opened, which was the Book of Life, and the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to their actions --- Each were (sic!) judged according to their actions. Any one who was not found in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire”.(vv. 12,15). Here is the same crucial criterion: does Jesus know us? We write the names of the people we know in our address-books, even if it is only to send them an annual Christmas card. Jesus, too, writes the names of those he knows in his book, so that they may share eternity with him, and he with them. Paul would probably point out to us that this judgement scene also confronts us with the ‘either/or’ of works and grace. Can any of us afford to rely on the ‘works’ recorded in God’s ‘conduct book’ of our life? Are any of us good enough for God? These books, when opened, will reveal the naked truth about all of us, a lifetime of thoughts and words and deeds characterised, to a greater or lesser extent, by selfishness and pride, and stained on every page with sin. Mercifully, however, many entries in God’s record-books have been redacted, not just crossed out (though that term is, of course, appropriate) but “blotted out”, as Paul says, so that God has no record of our sins - IF we are relying on God’s grace in Christ, trusting that our sins were “nailed to his cross”, so that his death paid for them (Col. 2.14). Those who have put their trust ‘into’ Jesus in this way have been ‘born again’ in the Spirit, and their births, as with physical births, have been registered in the Book of Life; the father’s name? God himself, the heavenly Father! He will never say to his own children “I never knew you”. If our names are in that Book, we are secure for all eternity; if not ---.

The end of ‘mystery’

We began this final section of our study of ‘mystery’ by looking at Revelation 10.7: “the mystery of God is completed”. It is important when reading Revelation to remember its dual perspective: John is still living in time, but he is on a privileged day-trip to eternity, a dweller on earth granted a unique vision of heaven and of the last days of history. At the end of this chapter (v.11), he is told that he “must prophesy again” to the world in which he still lived, and that prophecy, surely, must be the book which we have today. A little earlier in the chapter (v.4), he is told to “seal up” what the seven thunders said, and not to “write them down”. We have seen from the beginning that ‘mystery’ requires partial revelation, but here we meet two different levels of mystery - ‘mystery’ and profound mystery’, perhaps. We know that the seven thunders spoke, but we have no clues at all about what they said. But what John did write down, the Book of Revelation, of which the ‘open book’ handed to him by the angel (v .8) is presumably an epitome, is still, to us, a mystery, just as the prophecies of the OT were mysteries until their full significance was revealed in the NT - beginning with the ‘opening’ of the Book of Isaiah in Luke 4. Perhaps the last book of the bible should be called “the Part-Revelation of John”. As long as there is time-present separated from time-future there will be mystery; only as time-future becomes time-present will that mystery be revealed. Those who are dogmatic in their interpretation of every detail of the colourful ‘picture-book’ of Revelation are, it seems to me, profoundly mistaken - even if time-future eventually proves some of them right! But there are (at least) three great truths that Revelation unambiguously re-affirms: our sovereign God is in control of history; Jesus Christ will return to earth; and there will be an awesome Day of Judgement on which all the injustices of our godless world will be redressed.

For the rest, we can only say ‘wait and see’ - just as the creation itself “waits with eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” (Rom. 8.19). Until then, while the mystery of the gospel has been gloriously revealed, the mystery of God’s judgement of the world (symbolized by the Book with the Seven Seals) remains a mystery still. The end of mystery will not come until the end of history, which will be signalled by the sound of the “last trumpet”. Then “time will be no more”, or “there will be no more time” (v.6). God will have torn off all the pages of his calendar, each ‘kairos’ on his timetable will have taken place, and all will be revealed: “the mystery of God is completed”. Until then there is much that we do not know; but what we need to know God has made known to us: the “knowledge of salvation” contained in the open book of the gospel, which leads to the most important knowledge of all. “This is eternal life”, Jesus prayed to his Father on the night that he was betrayed, “that they should know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent out” (John 17.3). We will leave it to Paul to sum this up for us, with a brief interjection from John: “Whatever knowledge we have now in this life will one day pale into insignificance; for now our knowledge is only partial, and even our prophesying is only partial revelation. But when completion comes (‘to teleion’, that which is whole or perfect) all that is only partial will become insignificant. For now, looking into the future is like looking into a distorting mirror and seeing only puzzles, but then, when Jesus comes again, we shall see him face to face. [For we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him just as he is.] In this life, in this world, my knowledge is partial, but in the next I will know as surely and as certainly as God in Christ now knows me.” (1 Corinthians 13.9-10 [1 John 3.2])