Revelation. A primer.
(This is the text of an introductory message on Revelation Bryan gave at Watershed. The audio did not come through, so it is – excuse any typos and half-sentences. Much of the below came from Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther’s Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now)
How do you feel about this book?
Many of us are a bit intimidated by it. But really, what’s not to like about angels and demons, visions and dragons, beasts with horns, lakes of fire, Satan, blood, scorpions, terror and mass hysteria?
If it scares you, you’re in good company:Some early church fathers Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria; Gaius, Cyril of Jerusalem and others refused to use Revelation because “it contained errors in fact and had not been written by an apostle. Others, felt it was written by a Gnostic heretic, others hated the way it was abused to make predictions about the future. As late as the fourth century Eusebius declared this was a ‘disputed’ book (rather than simply accepted or rejected).
Martin Luther denied Revelation canonical status because in his view it was not theologically accurate. The Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli refused to base any teaching on it because it was, “no biblical book”.
John Calvin wrote commentaries on 26 New Testament books. How many are there? 27. He skipped Revelation.
To this day, Catholic and Protestant lectionaries have only minimal readings from Revelation, and the Greek Orthodox lectionary omits it altogether.
So if you don’t like Revelation, if you’re scared by it, if you expect fire and brimstone just b/c we’re talking about it – join the club.
SO WHY IS IT IN THE BIBLE? That’s a very good question.
Well, early on it was accepted by many Christians and within a few decades had quite a wide circulation – it was cited as authoritative teaching in Asia, Egypt, North Africa, Rome and South Gaul. Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Melito, Bishop of Sardis and Irenaeus, and later Augustine all supported it.
Others throughout the history of the church have found that it does contain some important words from God for the community of faith.
And here’s the thing: if we skip over this book and ignore it – others will step in and interpret it, and their voices will fill the void.
Indeed they have, and they are. (In fact, I just listened to a message on prophecy from an area church and it was a scary but all-too-prevalent approach).
Christopher Columbus thought he had discovered the New Jerusalem: “Of the New Heaven and Earth which our Lord made, as St. John writes in the Apocalypse… He made me the messenger thereof and showed me where to go.”
Seventeenth-century puritans like Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather saw America as ‘the Promised Land’ and the end-time ‘City on a Hill’. Which is all well and good, except that it branded the indigenous peoples as ‘savages’ who stood in the path of fulfillment of Scripture and legitimated the genocide of much of the native inhabitants of this land.
- John Darby (1820’s) invented a theological perspective called dispensationalism, which into our own day has often spent the most energy in this book (often to very imaginative conclusions) (7 dispensations) Often words like Armageddon, tribulation, prophecy, rapture, pre-millenialism.
I hate to break it to you, but the rapture is not a biblical concept (but we don’t have time here to get into that here).
- C. Scofield – Scofield Study Bible (10 mil sold). Perpetrated a dispensational viewpoint by blurring the line between his commentary and the text itself, leading unsuspecting readers astray.
- This spawned vast numbers of fundamentalist premillienialists who felt they were living in the last times and that God would rapture them away. They opposed any social action as doomed to failure and as actually the work of the Anti-Christ. (You see how this can become insidious).
Late, Great Planet Earth – Hal Lindsey
Oil, Armageddon and the Middle East Crisis
- supported much of the 1980’s right wing policies of Peace through Strength and helped us see ourselves as Good and others such as the Soviet Union “Evil” (or the Evil Empire)
Left Behind series (Read it as fiction, not as an account of anything happening in reality).
But all of this comes out of a desire to understand our human condition, to understand where we are in history, to understand where things are going.
German Theologian Ulrich Körtner notes that existentially we all have “apocalyptic world anxiety” – not that we think the world is about to end, but that we all recognize that life is finite, and we are unable to change that fact about ourselves.
Caputo: “Every generation believes it is a part of a crisis, that something unprecedented is around the corner, for good or ill.”
Catherine Keller notes that the bad side of this is that we can develop “the apocalypse habit”.
This doesn’t mean we binge on movies like Terminator or 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow.
It means we act out our lives as a series of “apocalypse scripts”, patterns in which life is seen as an either/or moral duality. We must unite against “the enemy.” It’s us vs. them. So we divide the world into the “saved” and the “condemned” and yearn for the destruction of those who are “outside” the holy circle.
In times of social confusion and stress, apocalyptic answers are attractive…
But we must take care before assuming we can open a book like Revelation and discover a ‘code’ that will reveal easy answers for our time.
In fact, I think you’ll agree as we get into this book that there may indeed be some answers, but they may not be the things we expect.
So what will our approach be?
Revelation is like a piece of art –
complicated, mysterious, powerful.
Aspects will strike you as beautiful, other aspects as hideous.
A good piece of art is designed to create an encounter that changes you, that takes you somewhere, that speaks to you more than once and in more than one way. It is not able to be grasped directly.
Consider Picasso’s painting, Guernica:
We could approach this painting in a vacuum – and it would speak powerfully to us. We don’t need to know any of the background or historical context to be moved and affected by this piece. You don’t even need to understand cubism/surrealism.
However, knowing the story, knowing the style also helps bring out the depth, nuance, and power of it. It helps us connect it to real things in history. Not every painting seeks to do that. But this one does. Check out the backstory here.
So we will approach Revelation in this manner – as a magnificent piece of art – to be handled delicately rather than presumptuously, to be viewed many times without making a definitive verdict on our particular interpretation, to be conscious of the context in which it was written –
Who wrote it?
Who was it written to? Why?
What circumstances is this addressing?
What literary genre does this belong to?
Are there other similar works that we can compare it to?
What themes, pictures, wordplays are happening that would be understood in its day that may escape us today?
And then and only then: what does this have to say to us?
Five keys in understanding Revelation:
(From David Chilton, The Days of Vengeance)
1) Revelation is the most ‘biblical’ book in the Bible. Hundreds of quotes and allusions are made to the OT.
2) Revelation is apocalyptic literature, and uses symbolic language, to be understood carefully and in its context.
3) Revelation is speaking about imminent events – things happening in the world of the first century. It is not about nuclear warfare, space travel, or the end of the world.
4) Revelation is a worship service. John describes a heavenly worship service in progress.
5) Revelation is a book about who is ruling. It is not about how terrible the Antichrist is, or how powerful the devil is. It is, as the first verse says, ‘the revelation of Jesus Christ.’ It tells us about his lordship over all, and that the kingdom of this world has become the Kingdom of our God and of his Christ, and he and his people shall reign forever.
– Revelation is a letter. What do we know about letters? They have specific authors and specific recipients. Here is where it differs from much art, or from other types of literature like poetry, which are more open-ended.
So, fundamental to our approach will be this:
This was written in a particular time in history to a particular group of people (in fact, we’re even told the recipients – the 7 churches). It was not written to us. If we want to understand it, we must read it in terms of its original hearers & their situation. The end of the first century AD was much different than beginning of the 21st century.
It has historical particularity. But that fits in with much of the Bible and the basic Christian affirmation of the incarnation. The gospel’s foundational declaration is not that God is revealed in general, but that he has definitively revealed himself in Jesus, a particular Aramaic-speaking Jew who lived and died in a particular time and place.
So our first point of approach will be historical – to understand who it was written to and why, and then and only then to begin to draw some connections to us here and now.
Revelation is a call to have faith in God rather than empire. It draws on language familiar to a people who throughout their history had been subjected to one empire or another, who had experienced oppression at the hands of Egypt, Canaan, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and finally Rome. Revelation is a witness to the way of God, who entered into the heart of the empire in Jesus, breaking the cycle of earthly powers not by conquering it, but by submitting to it in love.
So for all the pictures of violence in this book, you have to remember that Revelation relies upon visions and dreams and often communicates things by way of illustration, parable and allegory – and when we literalize these things we do violence to the message itself. Because the God of Jesus Christ revealed himself ultimately not as a violent king, but as the lamb who was slain.
Revelation is a call above all else to loyal endurance – to remain faithful when it appears evil is having its way, it is a call to be ready to forgive, to turn fear and anxiety into trust – to know that our victory as the people of God often remains as hidden as the victory of Good Friday – but that the way of God, the way of love, the way of the cross will always win.
So in the next few weeks we will bravely blow the dust off this long neglected, much misunderstood masterpiece.
May God give us eyes to see it anew.
You can listen to subsequent messages on Revelation here.