“Bizarre” is a pretty good word to describe the book of Revelation.
In it we find visions of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the seven bowls of wrath, tormented sinners crying out from the lake of fire, the satan bound for a thousand years and then the final battle of Armageddon.
“Bizarre” is also a good word to describe many of the interpretations of the book of Revelation that have been offered over the years. There is some deeply flawed theology out there – I’m sure you’ve noticed.
For one entire semester in seminary, I dug into the Revelation with my favorite professor, Dr. Gene Boring. His commentary is one of the gems of recent scholarship and he is well known for his wise, thoughtful approach to this odd but important last book of the Bible.
Always, whenever we study the Bible, we must be asking two fundamental questions: “What did it mean?” and “What does it mean?”
What did this pastoral letter mean to the seven churches of Asia who first received it at the end of the first century? And what can it mean for us now in the twenty-first century? Finding that bridge of appropriate interpretation across time and culture is sometimes no easy task.
Another important question for us to ask ourselves is: “what kind of writing is this?” Remember we’ve talked recently about “genre;” there’s a wide variety of literature in this library we call the Bible: poetry and narrative and histories and prophetic writings. Apocalyptic literature in one of those categories, one type of genre – and it is absolutely unique.
Dr. Boring used to tell us that the onslaught of bizarre interpretations of apocalyptic literature like Revelation is partly the fault of the mainline church. When responsible interpreters fail to offer sound scholarship and appropriate understandings, we end up creating a vacuum into which all sorts of inappropriate versions of what the vision means.
So here we go; let’s tackle this unusual letter and see what we can learn.
Whenever we ask: “what did it mean?” we have to look at the time and place of the writing. Your sermon notes give you some background that help explain the world at the end of the first century; the world of John and the seven churches to whom he wrote.
Over several decades, one crisis after another rocked their world. Famines and earthquakes and volcanoes. Wars and rumors of war. Political intrigues, rebellions and coups. Surely in many ways it must have seemed like the end of the world.
And actually – that is what John may well have believed. Many of the biblical writers expected Jesus to return at any time. “The time is near,” John warns. And much of the chaos of their existence felt like the cosmos in labor; birth pangs of a new – something – coming very soon.
But there was more going on than just geographical and political upheavals. Here was a time when Christians were gaining notice and that meant the disapproval of their neighbors and local magistrates.
These unusual people called “Christians” were accused of being atheists; they said they worshiped a God but there was no image or statue that anyone could see. They were accused of being cannibals; they admitted to eating of the body and blood of this one they called the Christ. They were accused of being traitors; they refused to acknowledge the emperor as “lord and god” and instead claimed Jesus Christ as Lord. John mentions one martyr already – Antipas – and he fully expects a full scale persecution to break out upon his fellow Christians in Ephesus and Smyrna and Thyatira.
It was into this mix of challenges that John wrote. He wrote to encourage them and to remind them that the invisible and one true God truly IS the sovereign lord over all of history. He wrote to call them into faithful hope.
But when John wrote this letter about this vision he had received, he speaks in another language that is hard for us to understand. I don’t mean Greek – although that was his native language. I mean the language of dreams and apocalyptic revelations. From the time of Daniel and throughout the period between the testaments, many people were writing in the apocalyptic style, so it was a familiar language for John and the people of his day.
John’s reader/hearers got it.
We – not so much.
But there are plenty of Christians throughout history and even in our own day who would get this. They would get the descriptions of horror and oppression. They would expect God’s judgment of the evil they had experienced. They would yearn for justice. They would hear the word of hope. Christians in Nazi Germany. Christians in the killing fields of Cambodia. Christians in Stalin’s Archipelago. Christians in Syria.
It’s important for us to remember that much of Scripture and this book in particular is written from the perspective of the bottom. It is the people on the bottom of society who wrote most of these texts. It is people who constantly experienced oppression and powerlessness who have told these stories.
The overarching story of the Old Testament is the story of slaves liberated from Egypt, exiles liberated from Babylon, and a people taken over and occupied by the Empire of Rome yearning once again for freedom. John taps into this story as he describes his vision of judgment and hope. He makes over 500 allusions to Old Testament biblical images as he crafts this writing that describes what the Risen Christ revealed to him.
So one reason we have trouble reading the book of Revelation is because it is written from the perspective of people on the bottom while we generally see the world from the top. We live in a place of privilege and power and prestige so it’s hard for most of us to comprehend what life is really like on the bottom of society.
But another reason it may be hard for us to understand apocalyptic writings is because we are all thorough going Western rationalists. We have been shaped by a certain way of thinking: logical and literal and concrete. It’s often hard for us to let go of that and let our imaginations run free.
This is the reason, I think, that so many modern day interpretations of this book are so off base: because you can’t take these fantastical word pictures and make them into concrete images. You can’t take the numbers and reduce them to mathematics when they are meant to paint a broad, impressionist work of art. The images and pictures are intended to elicit feelings and emotions more than logical explanations.
Plus – this letter to the seven churches was meant to be read aloud in one sitting. Reading it aloud helps create an overarching sense of the spirals of reality – good and evil, light and darkness, hope and despair. It’s like a symphony; you feel it even if you can’t read music. It’s like an opera; you get the story even if you can’t speak Italian. It’s like a radio drama: we can “see” what’s happening with only the sounds of the words.
We give another part of ourselves (besides our brain) permission to make sense and to understand something deeper than logic. And particularly something like this revelation: this fantastic work of prophetic imagination.
But there is one more reason why we might have trouble reading the book of Revelation. Dr. Boring says:
The chief difficulty in understanding Revelation may be neither historical nor conceptual but a matter of the heart. Biblical prophets offer a vision of reality which conflicts with the natural inclinations of the human will and its values. This is powerfully illustrated by John’s vision of self-sacrificing love, the Slaughtered Lamb, representing the ultimate power of the universe. This goes against our grain…(Boring, 46)
Indeed! We humans are all about self-preservation, self-satisfaction, self-determination while the prophetic word of the Risen Christ as revealed to John is about dying to self and living as a witness, as a martyr for the kingdom and the reign of God.
Revelation makes a claim on the reader (Boring says); a claim we may not want to hear. This native resistance to the call to discipleship may be the ultimate barrier to understanding the message of Revelation. (46)
“Apocalypse” means an unveiling.
A pulling back the curtain in order to get the tiniest glimpse of what is, of what is real; of a reality that is unspeakable and indescribable; reality that can only be imagined. And what is envisioned and imagined in this beautiful and bizarre writing is that the Sovereign God, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End is on the throne and in control. And the Risen Christ, the Bright Morning Star, the Lamb who was dead and now lives forever and ever is still speaking. And the Spirit is alive and well in the churches.
And what about the church?
What does the Revelation reveal about the church?
“I looked,” John says, “and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,
Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! (Rev 7:9-12)
The Letter to the Seven Churches
The Revelation of Jesus Christ to John
The Letter to the Seven Churches is a pastoral letter from John revealing his vision from Jesus Christ. The vision was given to this prophet in order to encourage discouraged, confused Christians and to reassure them of God’s sovereignty and care.
- Probably dated near the end of Emperor Domitian’s reign – 95 or so
- Jewish and Christian literature written after the Roman-Jewish War of 60-70 used “Babylon” as a transparent symbol for Rome, since Rome had besieged and destroyed Jerusalem just as the Babylonians had done centuries before.
- The people to whom John wrote had lived through tumultuous times filled with one crisis after another
- Major wars had been fought against rebellions in Gaul, Germania and Judea
- The tyranny and death of Nero in 68 had been followed by more wars and three emperors within two years
- In 79, Vesuvius erupted burying Pompeii and creating a widespread cloud of darkness
- Famines in the early 90’s had taken their toll
While the pagans sought to come to terms with such disasters through philosophy, religion and superstition, Christians wondered what it meant in such a cataclysmic world to claim that God was sovereign and that Jesus was his anointed king.
- Eugene Boring, Revelation, Interpretation Commentary (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989).