Scripture authors have an advantage over Scripture readers. Most of them interpret events which happened years before they put stylus to papyrus. We’re attempting to make sense out of life as it unfolds before us.

Even writings like the Book of Revelation, filled with predictions, contain little that pertains to events yet to take place. Most of its projections about "things to come" describe things that happened before the text was written.

Apocalyptic writers, like the author of Revelation, have a license to date their works earlier than their actual composition, making the past look like the future.

Yet Sunday’s passage (Rev. 7: 9, 14-17) does speak about something still to come: a glimpse of "the great multitude...who have survived the time of the great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb."

Distress

The "great distress" seems to be the persecution the author’s community is experiencing, a distress from which he’s certain Jesus will eventually rescue them. Confidence in Jesus motivates all Christian Scripture authors, the lens through which they interpret the past events they narrate.

We have no more consoling expression of that belief than Jesus’ statement in the Gospel (Jn 10: 27-30): "I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they shall never perish....No one can take them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one." John penned those words 65 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. He has three generations of Jesus’ care to fall back on.

In a parallel way, Luke reflects on something that already happened — one of the three fundamental changes in early Christianity (Acts 13: 14, 43-52). By the time he writes, he’s confident that the Church changed only because the Holy Spirit inspired it to do so. This change revolves around the question, "How did a movement which began 100-percent Jewish around the year 30 become almost 100-percent Gentile by the time Luke writes in the mid-80s?"

We know from Paul’s letters that the community’s conservatives harshly criticized those who ignored the original practice of converting Gentiles to Judaism before admitting them to Christianity. Along with other "liberals," Paul baptized Gentiles as Gentiles, never requiring them to be circumcised or obligating them to observe the 613 Torah laws.

Time-shifting

The historical Jesus never dealt with Gentile conversions to His movement. As a reformer of Judaism, He called only Jews to repent and believe Yahweh was present and working in their everyday lives. The risen Jesus and His Spirit dealt with the Gentile problem by the time Luke writes. But because of the dramatic turnabout, it appeared to some Jews that the historical Jesus always had an agenda to replace Jews with Gentiles.

That’s why Luke makes a big thing out of Paul and Barnabas’ synagogue experience in Pisid-ian Antioch. Paul states the evangelist’s belief on the issue. "It was necessary," he proclaims, "that the word of God be spoken to you [Jews] first; but, since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us."

Certain that the risen Jesus, through His Holy Spirit, had encouraged the community to travel down this unexplored road, Luke interprets the general Jewish rejection of Jesus’ reform as a sign that His message could now be proclaimed to Gentiles, free of the baggage from Judaism.

Luke’s message is clear: Be conscious of the new roads we’re asked to explore. Though we always approach such opportunities with doubt and hesitation, 50 years from now, commentators will probably see the hand of God encouraging us to travel them.

(4/29/04)