“Bizarre” is a pretty good word to describe the book of Revelation.
In this vision, we see images of four horsemen of the apocalypse, 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.
Ask good questions
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 no simple task.
Another important question for us to ask ourselves is: “what kind of writing is this?”
Remember our discussion about “genre.” Remember there is a wide variety of literature in this library we call the Bible, i.e., poetry, narrative, 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. Whenever responsible interpreters fail to offer sound scholarship and appropriate understandings, we create a vacuum within which all sorts of inappropriate versions of the vision can fester.
So let’s tackle this unusual letter and see what we can learn.
What did it mean?
Whenever we ask: “what did it mean?” we need to look at the time and place of the writing.
Over several decades around the turn of the first century, one crisis after another rocked their world.
- Famines, earthquakes and volcanoes.
- Wars and rumors of war.
- Political intrigues, rebellions and coups.
- Not to mention the brutal destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
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. 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 beginning to gain notice and that meant the disapproval of their pagan 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 large scale persecution to break out upon his fellow Christians around Ephesus, Smyrna and Thyatira.
So here is the mix of challenges into which John wrote.
He wrote as a pastor, encouraging his people. And he wrote as a prophet, reminding them that the invisible, one true God truly IS the sovereign lord over all of history – no matter what the Emperor claimed.
John wrote to call people into faithful hope.
When John wrote this letter about the vision he had received, he speaks in another language that is hard for us to understand – the language of dreams and apocalyptic revelations.
From the time of Isaiah and Jeremiah, on to the time of Daniel and throughout the period between the testaments, numerous prophets were writing in the apocalyptic style; 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.
- Oppressed people identify with these descriptions of mistreatment and brutality.
- Persecuted people pray for God’s judgment upon the evil they experience.
- People suffering injustice yearn for justice.
- And so in John’s vision, these people would hear a word of hope.
Christians in Nazi Germany, in the killing fields of Cambodia, in Stalin’s Archipelago, in modern day Afghanistan … countless people of faith have experienced what John’s community experienced.
John’s vision pulls back the curtain of the heavens and reveals the workings of Holy Judgment upon the Empires of the earth.
John’s vision reveals Holy Redemption on behalf of the victims of Empire.
John’s vision demonstrates God’s preferential option for the poor and oppressed.
From the bottom up
It’s important for us to remember that much of Scripture (and this letter in particular) is written from the perspective of the bottom.
People on the bottom of society wrote most of these biblical texts. People who experienced oppression, occupation and powerlessness – these are they who have told these stories.
The overarching story of the Old Testament is the story of liberation:
- slaves rescued from Egypt;
- exiles brought home from Babylon.
- Now a people occupied and oppressed by the Empire of Rome are yearning once again for freedom.
John taps into this basic story of liberation as he describes his vision of judgment and hope. The Hebrew Scripture abounds with holy promises of rescue and redemption.
In this one letter, John makes over 500 allusions to Old Testament biblical images as he crafts this writing that describes what the Risen Christ had revealed to him.
Why we don’t get it.
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 Christians living in First World nations generally experience the world from the top.
Most of us live in places of privilege, power and prestige and so it’s hard for us to comprehend what life is like for the “least of these” living at the bottom of our social hierarchies.
But another reason it may be hard for us to understand apocalyptic writings is because most of us are thorough-going Western rationalists.
We Westerners have been shaped by a certain way of thinking – logical and literal and concrete – and it’s sometimes hard for us to let go of that in order to let our imaginations run free.
This is the reason literalist interpretations of this book are so off base: one cannot take these fantastical word pictures and pound them into concrete images. You can’t take these numbers and reduce them to some sort of math when they were meant to help paint a broad, impressionist work of art.
The images and pictures are intended to elicit feelings and emotions more than logical explanations.
This letter to the seven churches does that best with dramatic, oral readings.
The Letter to the Seven Churches was meant to be read aloud in one sitting. John meant it to be an experience of worship. Reading The Revelation aloud helps generate 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 in our ears.
This is our holy imagination at work.
We give ourselves permission to make sense and to understand something that is deeper than logic; something like this revelation – a fantastic work of prophetic imagination.
“This goes against our grain.”
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.
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 witness.
Living as martyrs for the kingdom and the reign of God.
The Greek word for “martyr” literally means “witness.” The one who is “faithful” is one who rejects the self-centeredness of our broken human nature and is re-created, re-born as self-giving and self-sacrificing.
This spiritual reorientation gives witness to the way of the Christ. But it will always and forever “go against the grain” of the way of Empires.
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.
“Apocalypse” means an unveiling.
Apocalyptic literature “pulls 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 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.
What is seen through our imagination is that the Risen Christ, the Bright Morning Star, the Lamb who was dead now lives forever and ever.
What is confirmed is that the Spirit is alive and well and still speaking to and within the Church.
And what about the church?
So what does the Revelation reveal about the church? Here is what John the Revelator saw:
I looked 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…
THIS is the Church of Jesus Christ.
A people larger than any of our human boundaries, tribes or other distinctions. THIS is the authentic Church to which we bear witness.
And THIS is the God of no boundaries to which we bear witness:
They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
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:
Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!
And all God’s people say: “Amen!”
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 pondered what it meant in such a cataclysmic world to claim that God was sovereign and that Jesus was his anointed king.
Quoted from Eugene Boring, Revelation: Interpretation Commentary (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989).
Image credit: Albrecht Durer woodcut from Germany 1498