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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 34 - The Reign of Christ - Year B
II Samuel 23:1-7; Psalm 132: Revelation 1:4-8; John 18:33-37

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Ordinary Thirty-Four (The Reign of Christ) B

  The Christian year ends with the celebration of Christ reigning
  in glory with dominion over all creation.

2 SAMUEL 23:1-7          The author of this hymn of praise, regarded as 
King David's last words, saw them as a fitting conclusion to the long
narrative of David's reign.  Jews and Christians alike saw it as a
prediction of the coming of God's anointed Messiah, in fulfilment of an
everlasting covenant with God's faithful people.  The last two verses of
this reading also describe the destruction of those who do not believe.


PSALM 132:1-12,(13-18)   This is yet another of the songs pilgrims may have
sung as they approached the temple.  This one recalls the vow of David to
build a permanent dwelling place for the ark of the covenant symbolizing
the presence of God among God's people.  The psalm also contains a promise
that David's descendants would sit on the throne of Israel forever if they
kept the covenant.


REVELATION 1:4b-8        The Book of Revelation fits the description of
eschatology, a form of literature containing of predictions about the
fulfilment of God's purpose at the end of history.  This introductory
passage cites the expectation of the early church that the return of Christ
would bring this about.


JOHN 18:33-37            Jesus had been accused by his opponents of
claiming to be king of the Jews, a treasonable offense in the Roman empire.
This exchange between Jesus and Pilate tells us what the early church
believed about the true nature of Jesus' sovereignty.  It was spiritual,
not political; but it certainly has political implications.

************

2 SAMUEL 23:1-7   The author of this hymn of praise, regarded as King
David's last words, saw them as a fitting conclusion to the long narrative
of David's reign.  Vs.1 clarifies the tradition of David as the man whom
God had specially chosen and exalted to be Israel's greatest king.  The
tone is more than hero-worship or hagiography.  It has a prophetic and
messianic flair to it.  Jews and Christians alike saw it as a prediction of
the coming of God's anointed Messiah, in fulfilment of an everlasting
covenant with God's faithful people.  

The prophetic element finds expression in vs.2 where the spirit speaks
through David in the same way that prophets spoke for Yahweh.  The
subsequent message reiterates the prophetic theme of justice (vs.3) and
elicits a striking simile of the world seen in the freshness of sunrise in
spring
(vs.4). 

The reference in vs.5 to David's house, i.e. his descendants who ruled
Israel after him, suggests that this hymn was written at a later date than
the end of his own life (c.950 BCE).  It conveys the conviction that the
Davidic dynasty was given the divine mandate to carry forward the covenant
relationship with Yahweh.  The question in vs.5c might be interpreted as
questioning whether or not David's heirs were succeeding in their duties.
Not to do so would be tantamount to the apostasy and atheism for which
later monarchs were infamous, resulting in the end of Israel as an
independent nation in 586 BCE.  The last two verses of the reading describe
the destruction of those who do not believe.  This judgment became the
religious explanation for the nation's disastrous history by the great pre-
exilic prophets and  the post-exilic chroniclers.  

One of the major difficulties in exegeting this passage is the corruption
of the Hebrew text.  Some scholars believe this is due to the antiquity of
the poem.  It bears some similarity to a poem in Numbers 24, thought to be
from the J-document source in the 10th century BCE.  If so, an early date
for this composition is not an improbability.  Other scholars contrast it
with the so-called "Testament of Jacob" in Gen. 49 and the "Blessing of
Moses" in Deut. 33.  The former is from the post-exilic P-document, but the
latter is thought to have originated in the 10th century BCE. 

In religio-literary circles, it is not at all unusual for new situations to
be addressed by reworking of older documents.  In 1913, a similar work
appeared when negotiations resulting in the creation of the United Church
of Canada were in final stages of development.  One of the leaders of the
union movement in the Congregational Union of Canada, Dr. Hugh Pedley,
wrote a fictional presentation of his vision of church union, *Looking
Forward.*  In the foreword to his story, Pedley acknowledged his dependence
on a previous work by the American social visionary, Edward Bellamy,
*Looking Backward, 2000-1887*, a depiction of an ideal socialistic society
in the year 2000.  The chronicles of human history are strewn with the
remnants of such visions that did not turn out as predicted.


PSALM 132:1-12,(13-18)   Here is yet another of the songs pilgrims may have
sung as they approached the temple.  This one recalls the vow of David to
build a permanent dwelling place for the ark of the covenant symbolizing
the presence of God among God's people.  Unlike several of the other psalms
of ascent, this one was created intentionally as a processional hymn
commemorating David's bringing the ark to Jerusalem.  There are antiphonal
parts for a soloist and a chorus.  It has been speculated, with good
reason, that its origin lay in the anniversary of the reigning king's
accession together with the celebration of Yahweh's enthronement as
Israel's sovereign Lord.  This celebration is believed to have been held
annually at the New Year in pre-exilic times.  The psalm most likely came
from the latter part of that period, but not from David's own reign.

"The hardships" in vs.1 refer to the loss of the ark and the difficulties
David had in recovering it and bringing it to Zion as told in 1 Samuel 4-6.
There is, however, no record of his vow (vss. 2-5).  That may be an
imaginative addition to the tradition for theological purposes, a common
practice of both OT and NT authors.

Vss.6-7 re-enact David's search for the ark sung by the choir and summon
the people to participate with them in bringing the ark to its appropriate
place in the temple.  A sense of awe in the holy presence symbolized by the
ark comes to the fore in vss.8-9 as the priests advance to carry the ark
into the temple and lead the people in worship before it.  As the ark
entered the temple, the monarch offered a sacrifice with prayer for
Yahweh's favor (vs. 10).  The remaining verses of the shorter reading
consist of an oracle which responds to the prayer giving Yahweh's promise
of the continuance of David's dynasty (vss.11-12).  A second oracle
(vss.13-18) promises Yahweh's continued presence in the temple and his
providential care for both the priesthood and the monarchs who will
continue David's dynasty.  The repeated mention of "the anointed one" lent
this psalm to a messianic interpretation, although the term originally was
a pious euphemism for the monarch.  The Hebrew word *masiah* from which our
term *messiah* derives literally means "the anointed one.*

Part of the traditional coronation of Britain's monarch is an anointing
just as David was anointed by the people of Judah in 2 Samuel 2:4.


REVELATION 1:4b-8   The Book of Revelation fits the description of
eschatology, a form of literature containing of predictions about the
fulfilment of God's purpose at the end of history.  Some people make the
mistake of reading this book literally or allegorically, then trying to
guess how it fits into the current affairs they hear about on the daily
news.  One wonders where and how one could find reference to the current
confusion about how democracy works or doesn't work in different countries.
Perhaps this is the time to prepare a sermon on how to interpret
apocalyptic and eschatological literature with its strange symbolism and
imaginative visions that so fill the pages of Revelation.  

One of the best resources I have found for understanding what John was
trying so say is Professor George B. Caird's commentary in the Black's New
Testament Commentaries (*The Revelation of St. John the Divine*, Adam &
Charles Black, 1966).  William Barclay's Daily Bible Study on Revelation is
also excellent, as is exegesis and exposition by Martin Rist and Lynn
Harold Hough in *The Interpreter's Bible*, Volume 12.  These commentaries
may be works of a previous generation of scholars, but still throw helpful
light on the mysteries of the book.  John Sweet's briefer summary of the
Book of Revelation in *The Oxford Companion to the Bible* (1993) represents
newer scholarship in this difficult field.

This reading contains a lot more than the greeting and address of the seven
letters to follow in chs. 2-3.  Seven is the traditional symbol for
wholeness or completeness.  So, in this instance, it does not only
designate the specific churches addressed, but the church as a whole for
whom John wrote.  In other words, the book has a universal audience, all
who believe that Jesus Christ is Lord.  According to Caird, "the seven
spirits who are before the throne" represents the Spirit of God actively
engaged with the churches in all its fullness and power.  He also sees this
as a reference to Zechariah 4 where the prophet has a vision of Israel
represented by a candelabra with seven lamps.  Rist also felt that the
phrase referred to several OT passages which spoke of the seven archangels
of Jewish speculation and to Persian astral theology where the sun, moon
and five visible planets were thought to have control over human affairs. 

There may also have been a hidden challenge to the imperial religion of
Rome in this phrase.  Coins from the early reign of Domitian showed the
emperor's heir who died in childhood as an infant Zeus playing with the
stars to compensate for the dominion he would never inherit.  For John,
there could be no other sovereign than the crucified, risen and ascended
Christ.  So immediately he calls forth the scene before the throne of God
(vs.5).  The titles he gives to Christ proclaim his sovereignty to
encourage those who are even now struggling with the challenge to be
faithful witnesses as they faced persecution for not paying obeisance to
the emperor.  The first witness to the saving, redeeming love of God was
Jesus Christ himself.  Faithful unto death, he was raised from the dead and
now is seated at the right hand of God as the reigning sovereign of heaven
and earth.  To him even the emperor owes allegiance for he is "ruler of the
kings of the earth."  The term "firstborn of the dead" refers not only to
the resurrection, but to the spiritual experience of every believer who
enters into Christ's death and resurrection through the act of baptism.
Compare also the words of Jesus to Nicodemus about being born again of the
Spirit in John 3:5-6. 

A double reference to the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrament of holy
communion leads into the next sentence of John's address to the churches.
This same sentence resonates with the Fourth Gospel in speaking of the both
the sacrament and the glorification of Christ by his death and
resurrection.  John also knew the OT (probably in the LXX version) and
voiced the tradition of the apostolic church that the church was the
continuation of Israel as "a kingdom (and) priests serving God" (vs.6 cf.
Exod. 19:6)  What is more, John believed and returned to the thought
several times that those whom Christ had released from their sins would
reign with him.  It remains a question whether they would exercise this
dominion in this life or in life beyond death (cf. 2:26; 3:21; 5:10; 7:13-
15; 20:6).  Does not current history of the early years of the 21st century
suggest that the latter is more likely?

In vs.7, John combined two apocalyptic references from Daniel 7:13 and
Zechariah 12:10 to create a vivid picture of the Second Coming of Christ
when even those who crucified him will submit to him.

But is their wailing when they see his wounds a true repentance and
acclamation of him as Lord and God as was the case with Thomas (cf. John
20:28)?  John, the author of Revelation, has no doubt.  He proclaims Jesus
"the beginning and the end" i.e the great "I am," the One in whom we are
perpetually confronted by the living, ever-present and all powerful God. 
In the OT, those terms are caught up in the Hebrew name *Yahweh Sebaoth,*
translated in English versions as "the Lord of hosts."  One of the LXX
translations for that name was *Pantokrator*, "the Almighty."  For John the
word meant something else than the Hebrew interpretation that Yahweh's
Messiah would lead a great army into victorious battle over Israel's
enemies.  Christ's omnipotence does not exist in unlimited coercive
military power, but in the authority of self-giving love that cannot be
defeated.  This surely has something to say about all the current
manipulations in the pursuit of power, especially when powerful nations and
religious fanatics make war as a matter of political choice. 


JOHN 18:33-37   Through the centuries Jesus' trial before Pilate has
engendered incredible flights of imaginative fancy.  Despite all the
research and preaching based on this event as John narrated it, we have no
clear, definitive indication of what actually happened.  We have no more
than this pericope tells us.  Jesus had been accused by his opponents of
claiming to be king of the Jews, a treasonable offense in the Roman empire.
The automatic penalty was death.  Pilate had very little personal reason to
examine the prisoner before him.  After all the others he had ordered
executed, one more dead Jew would mean little or nothing to his career. 
His governorship lasted for another six years.  Why then did John tell of
this incident in this way?

This exchange between Jesus and Pilate helps us understand what the early
church believed about the true nature of Jesus' sovereignty.  John designed
this part of the passion story to reiterate something he had Jesus say
earlier.  He wanted to reaffirm Jesus as "the way, the truth and the life."
(Cf. John 14:6)  He also wanted to clarify the true nature of the kingdom
of God as Jesus had revealed it, although the phrase actually occurs in
only one other passage in John.(3:3 & 5)

This interchange revolved around the meaning of the word "kingdom." (Greek
= *basileia*).  The word occurs no less than six times, twice as many as
"truth" (Greek = *aletheia*) on which so much expository and homiletic
attention has been focused.  As John narrated it, Jesus and Pilate talked
right past each other, but that appears to have been quite intentional on
John's part.  The meaning of the word "kingdom" was the key to what each of
the two men said.  Each had a totally different interpretation of it. 

For Pilate, "kingdom" had a purely temporal political reference.  As Roman
governor, he recognized Herod Antipas as one of two puppet kings, also
known as tetrarchs, of the Jews.  Philip, half brother of Antipas, was the
other.  Antipas had limited authority in Galilee; Philip in Transjordan.
Luke added a complication to the trial of Jesus before Pilate passed
sentence on him by having Pilate send Jesus to Herod (Luke 23:6-12).  At
most, Pilate must have been curious about this Galilean usurper of Herod's
jurisdiction, little though it was under Roman imperial sovereignty.  For
Jesus, the word "kingdom" had quite another meaning.

 As Jesus exercised it, true sovereignty was spiritual, not political.  Had
it been political, he told Pilate, his followers would be fighting in the
streets to keep him from being handed over to the Jews.  (We may note as an
aside that this is yet another hook on which to hang the accusation that
John's Gospel is anti-Semitic.  Actually, the nature of Jesus' sovereignty
prevents that from being credible except in its literal sense.  The central
drama of John's Gospel includes this conflict between Jesus and the Jews.)
Jesus had been brought before Pilate on a purely political charge of a
worldly nature.  Jesus did not deny his kingship; he interpreted it on a
level on which not only Jews, but people of all nations and races could
respond 

Pilate was as puzzled as we are about what that meant.  The sovereignty of
Jesus rests on the love of God he came to reveal.  The anticipated response
to that revelation of divine sovereignty is to make love dominant in all
human relationships in obedience to the commandment to love as God loves
us. (Cf. John 15:12; 1 John 4:7-12)  This humble truth was as far beyond
Pilate's understanding as it still is for a great many of the six billion
of us who inhabit this planet today.  That may be an entirely spiritual
sovereignty; but it certainly has political implications.  It is our
calling as believers to implement this sovereignty of love in the myriad
affairs of personal, national and international life.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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