You must prophesy again concerning many peoples and nations and tongues and kings,” a voice tells John (Rev. 10:11). Then someone gives him a “reed like a rod” and instructs him to measure (11:1). Apparently, the reed is the tool he needs to prophesy. Why does a prophet need a reed? How is prophesying like measuring?
Measured things—the bronze altar, the table of showbread, the lampstand and the golden altar, the ark—are holy things. Measured spaces are holy spaces, and measured furniture is holy furniture. Measured people, that is, counted people, are holy people. With a measuring rod, John is called to draw boundaries that mark off holy space.
John’s work seems more suited to a priest. Priests were specialists in sanctity, experts in measuring the holy and profane, distinguishing between the clean and unclean. That’s what John’s prophesying will accomplish. Prophecy, like priestly measuring, is an art of division. John’s prophetic work, like all prophecy, is priestly.
John’s reed is like a “rod.” A rod is not a measuring device, but a symbol of rule. Shepherds use rods (Gen. 30), and Moses’s rod is the instrument of his power in Egypt (cf. Exod. 7). The son installed by Yahweh on his throne bears a rod of iron (Ps. 2), and the shepherd king of Psalm 23 guides his flock with rod and staff. Jesus wields a rod of iron and promises the same authority to victors (Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 19:15).
Priestly measuring is always an exercise in authority. Priests rule by applying Torah’s standards of holiness and purity. Seeing a spot on a man’s arm, a priest judges it “skin disease” or “scab,” and his application of Torah determines the man’s condition in relation to the tabernacle. If the priest pronounces him “unclean,” then unclean he is, and he will remain unclean until he performs the prescribed ritual and the priest declares him clean.
John measures, but the fact that his reed is like a rod indicates that he shares the rule of the royal Son. As John speaks and writes, he rules. As prophet, John is also priest and king.
In his threefold ministry, John follows Jesus’s lead. Jesus was a “measuring” prophet who brought a sword, not peace. Every time he spoke, he attracted some and repelled others. Some heard and believed, some heard and hated. In this way, Jesus reorganized the people of Israel and brought the reign of God. Jesus’s prophetic tongue was a priestly reed and a royal rod.
A preacher isn’t a prophet, a priest, or a king, not exactly. But John’s reed-rod symbolizes the task of preaching. Like John, a preacher speaks the word of God to carry out the priestly task of distinguishing holy and profane. Like John, a preacher is an instrument of Jesus’s rule in the Church and the world.
Preachers need to speak with the sharp straightness of a yardstick. Some will hear and obey, submitting to the authority of Christ. Others will hear and resist, and so place themselves outside God’s holy people. Only when God’s Word is eaten, inwardly digested, and spoken do boundaries become clear. Preaching is, necessarily, an art of division.
Failures in preaching lead to chaos. If there are not clear lines, it is because the word is not being faithfully prophesied, because those who have received the reed do not measure straight lines. The Church’s murky confusions—about money, about sexuality, about politics—result from negligence of prophetic topography, and the world’s confusions are a natural product of the Church’s. We’ve been handed a reed-rod, but we’re reluctant to use it.
Preachers don’t merely measure. First and foremost, preachers are among the measured. If the Word is a sword, it first of all divides those who dare speak it. The Apocalypse is itself the reed like a rod, the written product of John’s prophesying. That book performs the priestly work of distinguishing between the holy and the profane. Through the reed that is Revelation, the Spirit of Jesus still measures us; through the rod that is Revelation, Jesus the Shepherd rules.
“Commentary” on this book is fundamentally backward, involving an arrogant claim to measure the measuring rod. Preachers must speak back to the words spoken but always be mindful that the book measures the reader, not the reader the book; mindful that we never master the book written to master us.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. This essay is adapted from volume 1 of Leithart's International Theological Commentary on Revelation, forthcoming from T&T Clark.