What comes to mind when you hear the word “Revelation,” as in the last book in the Bible?
Chances are pretty good you think about “end times prophecy” in some way, Revelation as depicting the end of the world at the end of human history. Probably a “rapture” comes to mind, with all the Christians being snatched up to heaven. There’s likely an “Antichrist” in the mix along with some “tribulation”—you know, with the “mark of the beast” inscribed on people’s foreheads (or micro-chipped under their skin). Almost certainly there’s an all-out “Armageddon” of war and a cataclysmic destruction of the world or “apocalypse” involved.
But these popular ideas about Revelation—and there is no easy way to say this—are simply wrong.
New Testament scholars have pretty much come to consensus on this: while Revelation may well culminate in a vision of a future new creation, the book for the most part is describing realities that were present at the time it was written in the first century Roman Empire. How do they know this?
First, Revelation is written as a letter: “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace…” A man named John wrote this as a letter to seven actual churches, seven ancient churches in Asia Minor or what is now western Turkey (1:4). It is, in other words, much like all the other letters we have in the New Testament—written as a message for specific people at a specific time long past.
And Revelation directly says as much. In describing what John “has seen” in his visions it is portraying both “what is”—realities during the time he was writing at the end of the first century—and “what will happen after this”—in the time that immediately followed (1:19).
Second, Revelation is a kind of ancient literature that historians now know quite a bit about, what is called “apocalyptic literature.” These ancient Jewish writings have similar kinds of images in them: terrifying multi-headed beasts, unusual heavenly creatures, and significant numbers like 3 and 4 and 7 and 12. And all of these are symbolic. This doesn’t mean they are not true—they point to something real, something true, but they do so through symbol and metaphor. All these images and numbers mean something.
And in all these ancient Jewish apocalyptic writings—whether it’s 1 Enoch or 4 Ezra or 2 Baruch or Revelation itself—what these images and numbers point to are realities before or during the time the particular apocalypse was written, with at most a glorious glimpse of an anticipated final future.
So if Revelation is not about some future end-time tribulation and antichrist world leader and total cataclysmic world destruction, what is it all about? What can we expect to find when we read Revelation responsibly? Here are three broad themes that tie in to the original purpose of the book and have profound relevance to us today.
Revelation gives us a critique of power and evil in the world. Structures and systems of power—political, economic, religious, and more—can become inhuman, corrupt and cruel, perpetuating injustice and bringing more death than life. (That’s what the “beasts” are all about.) And we can ourselves participate in these “evil powers” by turning a blind eye to their corruption and injustice in order to maintain our way of life. (That’s what the “mark of the beast” is all about.)
Revelation gives us a vision of God’s reign over all things. God reigns as Creator and Sustainer and Redeemer, working out God’s purposes even through all the chaos and conflict on earth. God’s reign of justice and peace through the crucified and risen Jesus is the alternative to the evil powers of our world. (That’s what the “divine throne” and “Lion/Lamb” stuff is all about.)
And so Revelation invites us to worship God, to be devoted to God and God’s ways, and not to swear allegiance to the ways of the world. Revelation calls us to live under the reign of God, seeking justice and mercy even if it means our own suffering, even as we live in a world of human rulers and authorities and powers that often go astray. And Revelation calls us to trust in God, even through our own suffering, even through our own death, that God will bring about true life.
Revelation gives us a unique encounter with Jesus. The word “apocalypse” actually means “revelation,” an “unveiling” of something previously concealed, and this is what the book’s opening statement announces it is: “A revelation of Jesus Christ.” From this opening declaration to the book’s closing benediction, Revelation shows us Jesus—in ways unlike any other portrait of Jesus we find in the New Testament.
We see Jesus as a majestic Lion that rules as a slaughtered Lamb. We see Jesus born as a child-king on earth while all hell breaks loose in the heavens. We see Jesus as a terrifying warrior on his warhorse, wielding a sword which turns out to be a word. We see Jesus as the light of heaven come down to earth, illuminating the nations in a never-ending festival of celebration.
It is Jesus who shows us who God is. It is Jesus who brings about God’s kingdom on earth, who shows us what it means to say “our God reigns.” Jesus, as Revelation states at its beginning and repeats at its end, is “the first and the last.”
Join us at Morden Mennonite over the coming Sundays as we dive into a few key chapters of Revelation, drawing these three threads together: the evil powers of the world, replaced by God’s reign of justice and peace, through Jesus the crucified Lamb and risen Lord. Join us as we join heaven and all creation in worshiping God and the Lamb, who are worthy of our praise. And join us as we seek to follow Jesus more faithfully, witnessing in word and deed to the Lamb who has been slain.
This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on April 3, 2016. All images are from a mandala of Revelation 4-5 created by Margie Hildebrand. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.