January 2020 Print

St. John’s Use of Words

By Pater Inutilis

St. John would live to be the last witness of the Word made flesh who dwelt amongst us. His inspired writings would close that revelation which we call public and constitutes the object of Catholic Faith (Lamentabili #21). Recorded history had lost sight of him since St. Paul came to Jerusalem to explain “his gospel” before the apostles “James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars” (Gal. 2:9). Then, concerning the disciple whom Jesus loved, silence, for nearly half of a century. “As for St. John, during the lives of Peter and Paul, tradition leaves him in complete oblivion and makes no mention of him until the closing years of the first Christian century; but, as if to make up for this neglect, it displays him then in a role of incomparable majesty, dominating the end of the apostolic age, by his writings, and by the unanimous respect he is invested withal” (St. John and the Close of the Apostolic Age, Abbé Fouard).

The Foretelling of Our Lord

Our Lord had foretold of him, as well as for his brother James, “You shall indeed drink of the chalice that I drink of: and with the baptism wherewith I am baptized, you shall be baptized” (Mk. 10:39). No manner or time was foretold them, but martyrdom would befall. First of all the apostles, St. James the Greater by means of the sword under Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:l f.). Now, over half a century later, with the persecution of Domitian, had the time come for the second of “the sons of thunder?” (Mk 3:17). History tells us, after all, of his being hauled to Rome to be done away with by having been cast into boiling oil; but to no avail. And so there he is, “…in the island, which is called Patmos, for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus…” (Apoc. 1:9), an exile. And there it is that Our Lord will come to him in a vision (Apoc. 1:10 f.), with the injunction to write what he sees in a book (ibid.). This would be the Apocalypse, the first, chronologically, of St. John’s writings.

Visions divinely given can indeed be of an external object, or imprinted directly on the imagination; or received directly by the intellect—ideas needing human speech and imagery to be conveyed to others: perhaps an impossible task [“I know a man…caught up to the third Heaven,…caught up into paradise, and heard secret words, which it is not granted to man to utter” (II Cor. 12:2 f.)]. St. John’s vision in chapter one, for example, of the Apocalypse was probably of the first or second kind; but others in this book were intellectual, not easy to communicate, needing (divinely inspired) imagery so to do. That would have been the case, for example, of what is related in chapter four: “After these things I looked, and behold a door was opened in Heaven, and the first voice which I heard, as it were, of a trumpet speaking with me, said: Come up hither, and I will show thee the things which must be done hereafter…”; and the rest of the chapter will paint for us a picture of Heaven. How do we picture Heaven? Immensity by oceans, beauty by myriad colors, triumph by thrones and crowns, majesty by prostration. Numbers have their own signification, whether it be the “seven” or the “four and twenty” or the threefold (“Holy, holy, holy”). It is remarkable that when St. John wants to describe spiritual truth he chooses not the language of human wisdom, though he had spent many a decade now in the Hellenistic world, but the language of his fathers, notably the images made known by the prophets of the Old Testament while remaining very free in using their imagery.

The Meaning of Numbers

Numbers in the Old Testament, and very much so for St. John, have a meaning quite apart from their numerical signification. “Ten” and “twelve” and multiples thereof represent “wholeness.” That is so ever since God gave Moses the “ten words” (Dt. 4:13; 10:4), i.e., all the Law in 10 commandments, and chose the 12 sons of Jacob to be the patriarchs of His people, “the twelve tribes of Israel” (Gen. 49:28). These numbers may have their numerical signification, or their symbolic value, or both at the same time. Ignoring this, the Jehovah’s Witnesses of today think only 144,000 will go to Heaven properly so called (Apoc. 14:1), as the Millenarists of old thought Christ would reign on earth with His saints for 1,000 years after His second coming and before the end of the world; whereas, as St. Augustine responded, if this does not refer to Heaven itself, then it refers to the whole Christian era, for “All power is given to me in Heaven and in earth…and behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world”(Mt. 28:18 & 20). “It is the last hour” (I Jn. 2:18). Even more than 10 or 12, “7” is the number of “sacred wholeness”—and that ever since God rested on the seventh day after His work of creation (Gen. 2:2).

Here are but two instances of this: the sevenfold Spirit would descend upon the Christ (Is. 11:2) Who then left us 7 sacraments whereby we might receive the same Spirit. Those who do not understand that it may also be used only in a symbolic sense will, after having pardoned their brother not 7 times, but 70 times 7 times (Mt. 18:22), judge themselves exempt from pardoning him any further. Woe to him if he offends a 491st time! “Seven” is omnipresent in the Apocalypse, a book that shows us the completion of God’s work in time. What of “666”? So many offers here! There are those who point out that letters in Hebrew or Greek may have a numerical value; so what names in these languages give us this total? Nero is one, Diocletian another. Here’s one I like (with all thanks to the Seventh Day Adventists): on the Pope’s tiara is written VICARIUS FILII DEI. Now, those Latin letters which stand for a number in this title add up to…666. And so, the pope is the Antichrist! I think rather that, until particular events make it clear in their own time, we can stay with the general understanding: 6 is a number of “imperfection” falling short of 7; 3 is a divine number (of the Trinity): here taken by that mimic of God that is Satan, so it does stand for “the man of sin…whose coming is according to the working of Satan” (II Th. 2:3-10).

The author of the fourth Gospel is the same as that of the Apocalypse, with his penchant towards symbolism, but less so for numbers now. Even so, he is careful, for instance, to note the first seven days of Our Lord’s manifestation (Jn. 1:15, 29, 35, 43 & 2:1), and it would be typical of him to see some signification in the fact that it was at the seventh hour that the fever left the son of a certain ruler, or that there were seven disciples with Jesus when He confides the whole flock to Peter (Jn. 4:52 & 21:2). But there are other symbols Our Lord Himself uses for which John will have a predilection, as “light” (and so “night” and “day,” “seeing” and “blind,” and “darkness” too) and “water”; or those of John, as “Word” for the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Then again, there are those things human said also of the Godhead and rich in meaning, as “truth” and “life”; we should not forget “Being” [“Before Abraham was, I am” (Jn. 8:58)] and “Charity” [for “God is charity” (I Jn. 4, 8 & 16)].

How God Speaks of Himself

With this language, we have God speaking about Himself in our own tongue [“No man hath seen God at any time: the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him” (Jn. 1:18)]. Human language uses the same term in quite different, but somehow related, senses. “To see,” for example, can be said of the eye or of the mind. Then again, of the mind left to its natural understanding, or enlightened by faith, or even by glory in the Beatific Vision. These are all very different things: but we understand that they all indicate some perception of an object. What, or how, remains very different. Divested of any imperfection proper to the creature, and understood “infinitely,” these tell us something of God Himself. St. John will use such a term as “see” in all these senses [of the eyes, e.g., Jn. 1:29; of the natural mind 4:19; but enlightened by faith—8:56; or glory—17:24; and of God—5:19].

Two points could be made: firstly, that we name things with which we are familiar and then apply them in a different way to describe things unfamiliar. And so to God too. But, in the nature of things, perfections are said firstly of God, and then in a derived and participated sense of creatures. He is the first source of all. Secondly, even when used in one sense, the others are suggested. This was very much St. John’s understanding—and so how he is to be understood. For example, when he writes: “And after the morsel, Satan entered into him. And Jesus said to him: That which thou dost, do quickly… He therefore having received the morsel, went out immediately. And it was night” (Jn. 13, 27 & 30). We know the paschal meal had to be eaten after sunset and that it was night.

Why mention such a banal detail, if not that it suggests also Judas’s state of soul? His heart was black, we might say. St. John will see the First Cause behind and through all, and all as related to that same First Cause (The Holy Ghost’s gift of “knowledge” will have the same purpose).