Subtle and Oblique by Design

Saturday, November 13, 2021

What did Jesus indicate? 

Shop talk. Get ready for some theological shop talk. I must necessarily get detailed and somewhat technical in this post.  

A single word will examined. I want to make a case for translating and interpreting an old Greek word in a very particular way. How this one rather inconspicuous word gets translated does indeed matter. It matters because this one word informs readers of the Book of Revelation as how they should approach and understand the entire book. 

The old Greek word is σημαίνω, which may be indecipherable to you. It is pronounced “say-mah-ee-no.” It is a verb. The most generic way to translate this verb into English is the word indicate. And as far as translations go, indicate works well enough. But the word σημαίνω needs to nuanced according to how it is used in a particular sentence, in a particular context. The context I have in mind is the very first verse of Revelation, in which Jesus indicated something.

For those of you who know a bit of New Testament Greek, you will notice that the word σημαίνω has shape-shifted a bit in Revelation 1:1. That is to say, it appears as a cognate in verse one, as ἐσήμανεν (“es-ay-mah-nen”). The reason the word looks a bit different is because the word has shifted into what we would call the past tense. In case you’re interested in grammatical exactness, in Revelation 1:1 the word ἐσήμανεν should be parsed as follows: It is the aorist – indicative – active – third person – singular. And it can be translated as he indicated

At this point, you might ask, “Okay, the most generic translation of this word from New Testament Greek into English is he indicated; so what? Why should I care?”

Well, there is a problem here, actually. The problem is that John, the writer of the Book of Revelation, uses the word ἐσήμανεν with a slight nuance. And it matters that his slight nuance is recognized. When John uses ἐσήμανεν, he means that something is not stated directly but indirectly. Something is being alluded to or hinted at or even encrypted.   

At this point, I imagine a good friend of mine saying, “But why should anyone believe you rather than the learned Bible translators?” A good question, good friend. What my good friend knows is that most Bible translators do not translate ἐσήμανεν with any sense of indirectness or opaqueness. 

That’s too bad, though. The translators should have caught the particular nuance in usage in Revelation 1:1. But because their semantic range of reference was too broad, they didn’t. They should have narrowed their focus to just how John uses the word. But for whatever reason, they didn’t. If they had focused just upon John’s usage, they would have noticed that John consistently uses the word σημαίνω and its cognates to convey indirectness, as communication that is not immediately apparent, but which needs to be examined carefully and figured out.

And now my friend is saying, “Okay, prove it.”

Okay, I will. It is not that hard. Just do a selective word study of σημαίνω and its cognates. Look at how John consistently uses the word.

The place to start is The Gospel of John, Chapter 12, verse 33. Here is how the verse is translated in the New International Version: “He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.” The NIV translators used the words “to show” to translate σημαίνων, which is an obvious cognate of σημαίνω. As far as translations go, it is good enough. But notice what the verse means in context. Jesus had indicated or shown how he was going to die. Jesus had not just said, “I am going to be crucified.” Instead, what Jesus had just said was, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all men/people to myself.” Jesus had indicated his manner of death obliquely, indirectly. The observant only caught his oblique allusion/reference after the fact, after his death by crucifixion.

John uses the word σημαίνω indirectly again in John 18:32. As with John 12:33, the word is used in its cognate form: σημαίνων. And as with John 12:33, the word references Jesus’ opaque allusion to his manner of death, that is, by crucifixion. The only significant contextual difference is that the crucifixion is now immediately forthcoming.

John uses the word σημαίνων a third time in John 21:19. This time the allusion is not to Jesus’ forthcoming crucifixion, but to the manner of Peter’s eventual death. But all the same, it is an allusion, and not a direct indication. Jesus does not tell Peter, “Someday you are going to die in a way that you would rather not die.” Instead, Jesus is more subtle and indirect — a bit more opaque and oblique. But he makes his point to Peter all the same.

Therefore, in the Gospel of John, we have not one, not two, but three instances of how John uses the word σημαίνω. Every single time, he uses the word to convey a sense of subtlety and indirectness. Jesus indicates what he wants to indicate opaquely. Only the observant (eventually) catch his drift.

My suggestion, or rather, assertion is that John uses the same word the same way in the Book of Revelation. Jesus did indicate something in Revelation 1:1. He indicated the entire vision — all the content of Revelation — opaquely, indirectly, cryptically. Jesus used allusions and references to say what he wanted conveyed. We do well to keep that in mind as we read and interpret the book. 

To summarize, if my assertion is correct, we are told from the very first verse of Revelation that the book’s content is opaque and cryptic by divine design. The implication is that it requires careful observation, frequent reflection, and protracted study.     

Mouth, Twenty Two Times Over

Audio Version

In the Book of Revelation, you can distinguish the godly from the ungodly by what comes out of their mouth, or goes into it. Do not take my word for it, though. Study it out for yourself.

Matters of the Mouth

But I will help you. You might do a book-wide word study. As you might expect, one key word you need to study is mouth. In Revelation, the word mouth appears twenty-two times. To save you a lot of time, I will list every instance now:

1:16 2:16 3:16 9:17 9:18 9:19 10:9 10:10 11:5 12:15 12:16 (twice)

13:2 (twice) 13:5 13:6 14:5 16:13 (three times) 19:15 19:21

Here is the word in Greek.

Now I will list in narrative order whose mouth is referenced, and what is said or done:

1. Christ – who has a two-edged sword coming from his mouth.

2. Christ – who will fight against the heretic Nicolaitans with the sword of his mouth, unless they repent.

3. Christ – who might vomit out the lukewarm messenger from the Church of Laodicea.

4. The Chimæra Cavalry – from the mouths of whom come fire, smoke, and sulfur (reminiscent of and probably referential to the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah – see Genesis 19:24-29).

5. The Chimæra Cavalry – who slay a third of humanity with the fire, smoke, and sulfur that comes from their mouths.

6. The Chimæra Cavalry – who have power in their mouth and in their serpent-like tails.

7. John, the Narrator – in whose mouth the small scroll will be as sweet as honey.

8. John, the Narrator – in whose mouth the small scroll was as sweet as honey.

9. The Two Martyr-Witnesses – from whose mouth comes fire, which devours their enemies.

10. The Dragon-Serpent Satan – who hurls water like a river from his mouth, in order to sweep away the woman, the mother of the male child Christ.

11. The Earth – which opens its mouth to swallow the river hurled from the mouth of the dragon.

12. The Dragon – whose mouth-hurled river of water is swallowed by the mouth of the Earth.

13. The Beast from the Sea – whose mouth was like a lion’s mouth.

14. The Beast from the Sea – who has a mouth like a lion.

15. The Beast from the Sea – who was given a mouth to utter arrogant words and blasphemies.

16. The Beast from the Sea – who opens his mouth in blasphemies against God, his name, and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven.

17. The 144,00 Soldier-Saints — in whose mouth no lie is found, for they are blameless.

18. The Dragon – from whose mouth three unclean frog-like spirits proceed.

19. The Beast – from whose mouth three unclean frog-like spirits proceed.

20. The False Prophet – from whose mouth three unclean frog-like spirits proceed.

21. Christ – from whose mouth extends a sharp sword, with which he strikes the nations.

22. Christ, the Rider on the White Horse – who slays the armies of the Beast and the Kings of the Earth with the sword from his mouth.

In Revelation the Dragon does not emit fire.

Here are some of my observations and interpretations:

Notice that a sharp double-edged sword comes from Jesus’ mouth. A reference to Isaiah 49:2 and Hebrews 4:12, the sharp double-edged sword is the Word of God, and is alternatively a surgical tool or a lethal weapon.

Fire comes from the mouths of the Chimæra Cavalry and from the mouth of the Two Martyr Witnesses. Fire most often symbolizes the Holy Spirit of God in Revelation. The fiery imagery probably references Deuteronomy 4:24 and Hebrews 12:29, both of which say that God is a Consuming Fire. Thus the Holy Spirit might well be the deadly, devouring fire that issues from both the Chimæra Cavalry and the Martyr Witnesses. If so, the Cavalry and the Witnesses could be one and the same entity, that is, the Church. That which issues from the mouth of the Church consumes or devours its enemies. This notion definitely does not work if taken literally: The Church does not and should not go around physically incinerating its opponents with fire. However, it does work if taken figuratively: When we are faithful witnesses, we do bring an ego-exterminating, life-transforming, Spirit-empowered message. Yes, we do. At least, we ought to.

The small scroll is the unique revelation contained in the Book of Revelation. This, in particular, is what John was given to internalize, to write, and to narrate. The small scroll reveals what the end of Daniel conceals, that is, important details about and instructions regarding the eschaton, the end of the age.

The dragon-serpent Satan does not breathe fire. On the contrary, he spews or, more literally, hurls water from his mouth. Is that because the dragon wants to extinguish transformative flame of the Spirit? Yes, I believe so. The dragon-serpent wants to quench the fire of the Spirit.

The Earth opens its mouth and swallows the river of water from the dragon-serpent. Historically, Satan’s attempts to silence and to kill the servants of God has often been frustrated by obedient, courageous acts of earthly concealment. Sometimes the scriptures have been buried or hidden away. Sometimes the messengers of God have hidden themselves in the wilderness or underground. Sometimes innocents have similarly been protected from would-be assailants.

The Beast from the Sea has a mouth like a lion. He utters arrogant boasts and blasphemies. This hubris means that the evil political autocrat of the hour will invariably resort to deception, coercion, violence, and destruction. Every generation has at least one such antichrist. An ultimate antichrist, known in Revelation as the Beast from the Abyss, will be someday be revealed. This antichrist will be particularly intent upon and adept at silencing the Church.

The 144,00 soldier-saints are shown to be blameless by what comes from their mouths. This is the Church at rest in heaven and in victory. These are the elect saints who have already completed their course. These are those who have overcome the Dragon by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony, and by loving not their lives, even unto death (see 12:11). These are the same victorious saints who will return to Earth someday with Christ.

The Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet comprise an end-times pseudo-trinity. In chorus and conjunction, the three will somehow emit three unclean frog-like spirits from their mouths. I have to admit that I do not understand exactly what this means, other than to say that this pseudo-trinity seems to deliver a particularly potent, deceptive final message or call.

And finally, we circle back to the conquering King of Kings, Jesus Christ, who ultimately overcomes and slays his enemies with the sharp sword from his mouth (19:20-21). The fact that Christ removes his enemies ought not surprise us. And given Christ’s actual and utter righteousness, that fact should not even bother us. It is as it ought to be. He is entirely good and deserving. Therefore, no one should stand in opposition against him. As the King of Kings, Christ must eventually rid his kingdom of all would-be rivals, and eliminate all his enemies. The only question is how a rebel meets his or her end. Will an individual rebel die in submission to Christ’s word or die in defiance to it? Will you voluntarily die to yourself in contrite surrender to the Word of God? Or will you go down asserting your own righteousness in defiance to Christ? The first sort of death, though it does indeed entail death to the ego, turns out to be not much of a death at all. The one who dies in voluntary submission to the Word of Christ does not suffer complete personal annihilation, but instead emerges a transformed person. Those who have yielded to Christ will testify that their submission to his authoritative word was well worth the temporary pangs of death. Alternatively, the second sort of death — the unyielding, defiant death — is a much deeper death, where no hope of escape is mentioned, and the certainty of exacting punishment is assured. In the end, no one will oppose Christ any longer. If Christ were in any way unrighteous or unworthy, that claim would be entirely disturbing and unnerving. But Christ is altogether good and righteous. He is wholly deserving of our allegiance and of our ready submission. Someday Christ will subdue and eliminate all his enemies. That is very good news.