Monday, November 12, 2012

Lectionary Helps: Sealed and unsealed

24th Sunday after Pentecost: Daniel 12:1-13, Psalm 16:5-11, Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-8

At the end of the book of Daniel, the prophet is instructed to "shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end. Many shall run to an fro, and knowledge shall increase" (Daniel 12:4). Self-appointed prophecy "experts" have come up with some of the most outlandish interpretations of this passage which display a thoroughgoing ignorance of the place of Daniel's prophecy within the grand narrative of Scripture.

As a Jew living in exile in Babylon, Daniel received a vision concerning the events which were to take place from the time of the end of the exile to the coming of the Anointed One, the Messiah. He was instructed to "shut up the words and seal the book" because, at that point in history, this was all God decreed for Daniel and the exiles to know. A time would come, however, when the book would be unsealed and the fullness of God's plan would be made known.

Fast forward about 600 years. An elderly Jewish mystic finds himself in exile "on the island called Patmos on account of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus" (Revelation 1:9). While "in the Spirit on the Lord's Day," he hears "a loud voice like a trumpet saying, 'Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea'" (Revelation 1:10-11).

Note the similarities between Daniel and John. They both receive their vision while in exile. They are both told to write it down in a book. Note, also, the glaring differences in the instructions concerning their respective visions. Daniel is told to "shut up the words and seal the book until the time of the end." John is told, "Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near" (Revelation 22:10).

In the grand narrative of the Bible, Daniel and Revelation are two parts of the same whole. When John begins to "weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it," he is consoled by one of the elders around the throne of God, who says to him, "Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals" (Revelation 5:4-5).

The book that Daniel had been instructed to seal is now unsealed. The fullness of God's plan for the redemption of the world has been revealed in Jesus Christ. He is "the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David" who "has conquered" the forces of sin, death, and hell through his life, death, and resurrection "so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals."

The instructions given to Daniel are consistent with the nature of prophecy under the Old Covenant. The mystery remained hidden, veiled, sealed until the time of its fulfillment ("the time of the end"). Under the New Covenant, however, the whole plan and purpose of God is an open book, unsealed, made known throughout the whole creation until the final consummation of history. As long as the prophecy was sealed, it was necessary for knowledge to increase, in order that the plan and purpose of God might be better understood as it continued to unfold. Now that all has been revealed in and through Christ, however, there is no excuse for not understanding it. Whereas Daniel is told, "Many shall run to and fro and knowledge shall increase," John is told, "Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy" (Revelation 22:11).

Of equal significance is the warning at the end of Revelation to "everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of this book of prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book" (Revelation 22:19). The book is unsealed because it is complete. There is nothing more to say. God's Word is final. We add to it or subtract from it at our own peril.