I THINK of Revelation as a book that belongs to Advent; for it speaks of the life of the world to come, the consummation of all things. In it, we do not encounter the resurrection in the same way as in the Gospels, where the foundation of the Easter message is rooted in historical time.
Anyone who reads Revelation notices that John of Patmos was fascinated by numbers. Some are used symbolically: there are seven churches, and seven spirits. He weaves rhythmic numerical patterns into his writing. Twice, there comes a triplet: the one who “was and is and is to come”. Jesus Christ has four characteristics (obscured by translating “the faithful” as an adjective): “witness”, “faithful”, “first-born”, and “ruler”. God acts in three ways: he “loves” us, “frees” us, and “makes” us priests.
John uses letters, as well as numbers, as a way of revealing patterns in the fabric of the world. He calls the Lord God “Alpha and Omega” (v.8). These are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, equivalent to our “A to Z”. My family has to put up with my shouting at the telly whenever an advert comes on for “Omeega” 3 supplements, or when James Bond succumbs to a bit of shameless product placement: “Rolex?” “Omeega” (Casino Royale, 2006). Greek has two kinds of letter “o”. One is (literally) little o: “o-micron”. The other is big o: “Oh-mega”. For me, “o-meega” jars as badly as saying “A to Zee”.
Is this pedantry (bad), or accuracy (good)? They are two sides of the same coin. Biblical scholars may aim for the latter, but still end up sliding into the former. When it comes to John of Patmos, being scrupulous about patterns of numbers and letters is never pedantry, but it is not mystery either — or magic. His patterns of numbers and letters are like the patterns of human life (birth, growth, decay, death), or seasons (spring, summer, autumn, winter); they are signs of the divine hand at work in creation. They show that God has turned the cosmic abyss of random chaos into something meaningful — we may almost say, “readable”.
This is what lies behind another John’s famous Gospel Prologue; for the Greek word for a rational principle is logos. It can also be translated “Word” (the capital letter is ours, not John’s).
And so to Doubting Thomas. It is not fair to criticise him for doubting, despite his famous nickname. Quite apart from anything else, doubt is not a sin.
What this Gospel passage shows is not that Thomas requires certainty when he should have faith, although that is what preachers — myself formerly included — sometimes argue. What Thomas is demanding is evidence. And his making that demand is not presumptuous, or suspicious: it is rational. We are created by a rational God, in his likeness; and we are called to conform to the image of his Son, who is rationality itself. It is not unreasonable for Christians to want to be reasonable.
Another thread of connection running through the readings is witness. Peter declares that he and his companions are witnesses of all that has happened. In a world in which stories are mostly transmitted orally from one generation to the next, and there is no modern technology for recording events, the evidence of witnesses is of supreme significance.
If trustworthy people tell stories, that is moderately convincing. If trustworthy people (remember how Peter was to insist that they were not drunkards, but sober truth-tellers, Acts 2.14) tell extraordinary stories about someone rising from the dead, that requires a greater step of trust. The witnesses may be judged by how far they live in accordance with the claims that they make.
Peter and the others will go on, outside the New Testament record, to die for their faith: the ultimate proof of their commitment to the resurrection. But we should not forget little, ordinary proofs that are also evidence for their commitment to the Truth. Years before, they all left their own lives behind to follow the man who — they later said — had risen from death.
Yes, they let him down when it mattered most. But even that was not enough, in the end, to deter them; for they turned back, and became witnesses once more. Now there is a pattern for us to recognise, take to heart, and imitate.