Before launching into Revelation chapter 10, let’s do a quick review of where John has taken us so far in his apocalyptic vision…
Chapter 1: an invitation to see the world apocalyptically.
Chapters 2-3: seven letters to the seven churches in Asia.
Chapter 4: John enters the throne room of the universe and discovers that there is a worship service going on around the throne involving the entire creation.
Chapter 5: No one is found worthy to open the scroll of God’s purposes for creation except the Lion of the tribe of Judah. John hears lion, but then he looks and discovers that the Lion of Judah is the Lamb that was slain.
Chapter 6: The seals begin to be opened and the judgment on Babylon begins. The first four seals are the four horsemen who point to the fears that the empire always holds in the back of its mind. The fifth seal gives the reader a glimpse of the altar before the throne and lets the reader hear the cries of the saints imploring the Lord for vindication and to make all things new. The sixth seal puts together the expectations of the Minor Prophets and brings down all of the places of security. The chapter ends with a question: “Who can stand?”
Chapter 7: This chapter answers the previous question. Before the seventh seal is opened there is a pause in the action. What is God up to in the midst of the unraveling of all of the places of security? John hears that there are 144,000 that are being redeemed. But then he looks and sees a multitude that no one can count from every tribe, nation, and language – all being marked by the Lamb.
Chapters 8:1-5: The seventh seal is opened and there is silence in heaven for half an hour as the prayers of the saints come, like incense in the temple, to the altar and to the throne. The prayers return to earth as “reversed thunder.”
Chapter 8:6-9:21 The seven seals lead to seven trumpets. The first six trumpets are a rehearsal of the Exodus plagues: hail, blood, bitter water, darkness, locusts, and the angel of death. At the end of the plagues no one repents.
Now we get to chapter 10 and 11, here we have a break from the bizarre world of locust and beasts while John and the Church are assigned tasks. The narrative here opens a space to assign the crucial role of the prophet and the church in the in-between time, this is the time after Christ’s death but before his final victory. So here the voice narrating will call our attention to John’s roll in all of this and the roll of the church in God’s plan for salvation.
[10:1-4] Then I saw another powerful angel coming down from heaven. He was robed with a cloud, with a rainbow over his head. His face was like the sun, and his feet were like fiery pillars. He held an open scroll in his hand. He put his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land. He called out with a loud voice like a lion roaring, and when he called out, the seven thunders raised their voices. When the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven say, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and don’t write it down.”
From the beginning of chapter 4 through the end of chapter 9 John has been observing the activity of God from the perspective of heaven – the place of God’s reign. But in chapter 10 he is back on earth observing the purposes of God as they take place in human history. Now in the vision he sees a great angel descend from heaven and stand directly on the earth and sea. It is very likely that John is continuing to paint with the colors of Old Testament, in particular the Exodus story. The bow may recall God’s promise through Noah, the pillars of fire God’s presence in the wilderness, and the scroll the Law on tablets of stone.
In the hand of the angel is a small scroll that, unlike the large scroll in chapter 5, is open and ready to be read. The angel is not making up his message. He speaks with the authority and power of the Lion of Judah. The voice of the angel is powerful like the thunder around the throne.
John is about to write the words from “the seven thunders” but is told not to write them down. Because John uses the article “the” to introduce the seven thunders it appears that he is using an image that would have been familiar to the early church. Some commentators connect the seven thunders to Psalm 29, in which the thunderstorm is interpreted as “the voice of the LORD.” “The LORD’s voice is over the waters; the glorious God thunders; the LORD is over the mighty waters” (Ps. 29:3). The phrase “The Lord’s voice” is then repeated seven times in the Psalm and so this may be the connection John is making.
It is also possible that the seven thunders, like the seals and trumpets, are meant to form yet another series of warning plagues. However, the adamant decision of the human race not to repent would make seven more judgments meaningless and so the Lord commands that they not take place.
[10:5-7] Then the angel I saw standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven. He swore by the one who lives forever and always, who created heaven and what is in it, the earth and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it, and said, “The time is up. In the days when the seventh angel blows his trumpet, God’s mysterious purpose will be accomplished, fulfilling the good news he gave to his servants the prophets.”
The angel raised his right hand to heaven and solemnly swore that the period of delay in God’s redemption is over. With the sounding of the great seventh trumpet, God’s purposes will be revealed and brought to completion. For the early church, the announcement that no further delay would be necessary would come as welcome news. The seven thunders would have involved another delay, but they were canceled. It is now time for the end to come.
As has been the case so far in Revelation, it is not likely that John is trying to give a chronology of events. However, from this point on in the narrative of Revelation, John turns to his inspired understanding of the nature of God’s ultimate redemption.
[10:8-11] Then the voice I heard from heaven spoke to me again and said, “Go, take the opened scroll from the hand of the angel who stands on the sea and on the land.” So I went to the angel and told him to give me the scroll. He said to me, “Take it and eat it. It will make you sick to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.” So I took the scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. And it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I swallowed it, it made my stomach churn. I was told, “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages, and kings.”
The angel commanded John to take the small scroll from his hand. He is then, like the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek. 2:8-3:3) told to take up the scroll and eat it. The scroll will be sweet as honey in his mouth but it will turn his stomach sour. It is likely that the small scroll is supposed to be viewed as a piece of the larger scroll in the hand of the One seated on the throne. This small scroll symbolizes John’s story, and the story of the early church around him, as they live into the greater story of God’s purposes that are written on the great scroll.
This scroll tastes sweet because it is part of the God’s will and purpose. But it is difficult or bitter for the stomach to digest because the purposes of God for John and the early church include walking through great suffering and through difficult circumstances. In verse 11 John is told to prophesy again. But now, rather than just being a scribe that translates the message that he hears. John is now himself part of the message.
As theologian Stanley Hauerwas often comments, “The Church does not just bear the message of Christ, the Church is the message of Christ.” I believe that this is the point of this text. The early church as they walk through the challenges set before them do not just proclaim the message of God’s redemption, they embody that redemption in their life together and in the way they treat their enemies.
Joseph Magina writes, “John’s taking of the little scroll is ‘Eucharistic,’ not in the direct sense that the scene depicts the celebration of the sacrament, but in the sense that he is being commanded to ingest the word of God, to let it enter him so as to become part of his own being… ‘There will be no more time,’ says the angel. Yet far from causing the church to hunker down into a sectarian enclave waiting for the end, the gift of the gospel sends the church outward into the world of peoples, nations, languages, and kings. The mighty angel crying with a loud voice is a type of Christ’s prophetic office, and John’s eating of the scroll a sign of the church’s mission of bearing witness to the gospel, both in its life and its speech. And as the angel stands astride land and sea, so the gospel is truly a message with no borders.”