Connections 11.27.2016: Alphabet Power

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Revelation 22:12-21

If you want to know a language, it’s pretty helpful to learn the alphabet. It really helps things go more smoothly.

I don’t remember learning the English alphabet. It’s unlikely that I was born knowing it, although I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t and didn’t read. Maybe my parents started teaching me when I was a little fellow. I’m sure that Miss Sylvia helped fortify my knowledge when I attended the kindergarten housed in the garage apartment beside her house. And I’m certain that I had completely mastered my ABCs by the time I completed Mrs. Light’s first grade regimen.

All was well so long as we were dealing with block letters. But cursive was a nightmare for me. It still is. I just can’t write pretty. Or legibly. I hear that children these days don’t have to worry about learning cursive. But they still need to know the alphabet. After all, you need to know your letters if you’re going to text things like LOL and PIR (BTW, if you have kids at home, you might want to know that PIR=Parents in Room).

Once you know all the letters from A to Z, you’re on your way to reading, writing, communicating, and succeeding. It’s a good thing.

But have you ever thought about what those who teach others give up in the process? When teachers teach students, they give up and give away power. Their students may grow to know more than they do.

Somebody taught Stephen Hawking his ABCs—and other stuff.

On rare occasions, a teacher encounters a student who knows more than the teacher does (although probably not in preschool or elementary school).

The apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas contains such a story about the boy Jesus. A teacher named Zacchaeus was impressed by the child’s intelligence, and asked Joseph for permission to teach him “letters” and other matters. After Zacchaeus went over the alphabet from Alpha to Omega (why he taught Jesus the Greek alphabet instead of the Aramaic one, I have no idea), the boy looked at him and said, “Thou that knowest not the Alpha according to its nature, how canst thou teach others the Beta? Thou hypocrite, first, if thou knowest it, teach the Alpha, and then will we believe thee concerning the Beta” (trans. M. R. James, according to whom Jesus talked like King James). Then Jesus went on to speak in pretty confounding ways about the meaning of the Alpha. Zacchaeus, flabbergasted by the boy Jesus’ knowledge, repented of having presumed to teach him anything.

Now, that story, like most stories about Jesus’ childhood, isn’t in the Bible. In fact, the only scriptural story about the boy Jesus is the one about the time he stayed behind in Jerusalem and his parents found him in the temple with the teachers. Interestingly, that story is also about Jesus’ surprising knowledge—although, unlike in the apocryphal one, he doesn’t display superiority and haughtiness (Lk 2:41-51).

Here at the end of the book of Revelation, the resurrected and ascended Jesus Christ tells John, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (22:13). At the beginning of the book, God had said, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (1:8). Jesus has God’s knowledge, perspective, and authority. Jesus is the originator and sustainer of all that is. He will also bring about its appropriate fulfillment.

We can count on it, because Jesus is the only one who knows creation and history’s alphabet. He is its first letter, its last letter, and every letter in between.

Discussion

1. Why do you think Revelation begins with God saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” and ends with God saying the same thing?
2. In v. 17, the first two lines invite Jesus to come to us, while the last two lines invite people to come to Jesus. How can we live in ways that look forward to Jesus coming to us, and that encourage people to come to him?
3. Why do you think John insisted that no one add to or take away from his words (vv. 18-19)?
4. Jesus said, “Surely I am coming soon” (v. 20) two millennia ago. How should we think about the meaning of “soon” in his declaration?

Reference Shelf

John began his work by saying that it was an apokalypsis, a revelation or unveiling. The revelation that John discloses is not primarily about end-time events but about the one who controls the end—God, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. When the last strains of the angels’ hallelujahs have died away and the vision of the new Jerusalem has faded, we are left not with places and happenings for which to yearn, but with a God in whom to trust. At the end of John’s vision we do not know any more about the details of the future than we did before we began reading the Apocalypse. All attempts to create charts and timetables of the end times, to describe in literal terms what the words “hell” and “heaven” symbolize, and to predict events or forecast scenarios of the last days are useless flights of fancy.…

We do a grave disservice to John’s visionary genius, as well as to his deep Christian insight, if we reduce the book of Revelation to a collection of end-time riddles or futuristic schemes. The rhetorical purpose of the Apocalypse is not to inform as much as it is to warn, to exhort, and to comfort. John writes to warn believers of the dangers of cultural and social accommodation, including the danger of yielding ultimate allegiance to any person or institution. He writes to exhort Christians to remain steadfast in their commitment to God and to live by a different value system than that of the social and political world of their day. He writes also to comfort those people of God who have been crushed and overwhelmed by evil and suffering, who are on the brink of despair, and who need to be assured that “the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.”

Mitchell G. Reddish, Revelation, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 433-34.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at MichaelRuffin.com. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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