The Significance of Numbers in the Bible
I’ve always been fascinated by the numerical significance of scriptural passages. Even if the chapters and verses ascribed to sentences in the bible are coincidental (they don’t comprise a part of the official text) it remains interesting. A most striking example is found in the Gospel of John, Chapter 6. Following the discourse in which Christ explains the true, transsubstantive nature of the Eucharist, many of his followers and disciples – Christians – abandon Him. The had witnessed His miraculous healings, they had believed that He had the power to forgive sins and they even accepted that He was the Son of God. What His would not accept is that His body was real food and His blood was real drink. When Jesus says to them “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you”, many choose to walk away from the life Jesus offered them. They had accepted parts, almost all, of Jesus’ message, but they would not accept it completely. As scripture states, “after this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.” To reject Jesus in the Eucharist was to reject Jesus Himself. The passage and verse is John, chapter 6, verse 66. John 6:66.
So it was with interest that I noticed a scriptural parallel from the book of Revelations and a second passage which you will surely recognise. I’ve always thought John 3:16 was a loaded verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Touted by evangelical and fundamentalist Christians alike as an affirmation that they are saved by faith alone, the passage is one of the most well known in Christianity. Yet even a basic textual analysis reveals ambiguity. In particular, the words “should not perish” – the translation given by both the RSV and the KJV – seem to imply no guarantees of salvation based on belief. Some translation say “may not perish” while a small few Protestant translations, including the NIV, say “shall not”. The various translations emphasises the complexity of bible translation and the importance of acquiring a good text. Clearly one translation is a poor translation, as the words may and shall are not interchangeable. Getting it right is paramount. As the NIV states in Rev 22:18 – “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: “If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book”. Catholic theology responds to the more accepted translation which adopts the permissive form “may” rather than the mandatory “shall”. The result is a comprehensive theology that recalls St. James’ clear and unambiguous statement in James 2:17: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
The consequence of this is that Catholic teaching stresses not only faith in Christ, but also a corresponding response. As Christians we are called first to accept Jesus and then to be transformed by him. It is in this second aspect that we allow the fullness of scripture to permeate our lives so that we are of service to Christ in prayer and our neighbour in action. For this to be accomplished we need a greater conversion than a mere intellectual acceptance of Christ. We need to be set on fire by His love and imitate Him in our words and deed. This fire and call to the authentic and encompassing Christian life is found in a passage numerically parallel to John 3:16. Revelation 3:16 proclaims: “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.”
We must not only believe in Christ but be alive in Christ, ardently striving to live the Christian life in its fullness. “It is possible to have just enough Christianity to inoculate you against the real thing.” (C.S. Lewis). Our life a Christians should be one of complete devotion and complete love. The essence of love is the essence of the love of Him who is Love.