The Revelation to John
Note to readers: If you have been reading the New Testament and following along in this blog, thank you. We have arrived at the final book of the New Testament and of the Christian Bible. This blog for Revelation is a little late in coming. June will be a nice month to tackle this mysterious work.
The Revelation to John or The Book of Revelation is a fascinating, difficult, powerful and mysterious work. Many readers see it as a road map to the future, if understood correctly – and of course, such readers believe they understand it correctly. “Revelation is widely popular for the wrong reasons, for a great number of people read it as a guide to how the world will end, assuming that the author was given by Christ detailed knowledge of the future that he communicated in coded symbols” (Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament). The first book I ever read that interpreted Revelation (by the way, never add an “s” at the end of this – the book should not be called “Revelations” – I took a seminary course on Revelation and the professor threatened to fail anyone who called the text “Revelations”) was such a road-map book, Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. Lindsey not only knew what all the symbols in Revelation were about, he interpreted the book within the framework of premillennialist dispensationalism. Dispensationalism is the belief that all of human history has been divided by God into certain periods or dispensations in which God deals with human persons in different ways. Here is a note from The Scofield Reference Bible, a work which will be referred to shortly. “A dispensation is a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God. Seven such dispensations are distinguished in Scripture.” Pre-millennialist dispensationalism includes the idea that the second coming of Jesus Christ will occur in two phases. First Christ will come to rapture faithful Christians, take them out of the world. This is followed by a seven-year period of tribulation in which untold suffering is visited upon humankind (those “left behind” – sound familiar?). Such suffering is foretold, in this interpretation, in The Book of Revelation. After the tribulation, Christ will come for a final battle – the battle of Armageddon – which he will win and afterward establish a one-thousand year reign on earth. Pre-millennialist dispensationalism, with the rapture at its core, as a theological framework for interpreting Revelation is a little over 150 years old. Its roots can be traced to John Nelson Darby, a British evangelical preacher. It was popularized in the United States through the Schofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909. “With sales in the millions, it became the version of the Bible through which Americans read their scriptures throughout much of the twentieth century” (Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: the message of hope in the Book of Revelation, 23. Rossing is a Lutheran New Testament scholar whose book will be a helpful resource for our reading of Revelation). As is probably obvious by my comments, pre-millennialist dispensationalism will not be the framework for my reading of Revelation. I don’t find it faithful to the text of this work and would argue that some of the implications of this perspective do harm not only to the text, but also to our world. More conservative Christian advocacy for the nation of Israel is frequently rooted in pre-millennialist dispensationalism. Such persons believe the Jews must be in Israel for Christ to return and so support the nation of Israel almost blindly, often neglecting the legitimate claims of Palestinians, some of whom are fellow Christians. Some dispensationalists believe the Temple must be rebuilt. This is a problem as there currently exists on the ancient Temple site the Dome of the Rock mosque.
While some find The Book of Revelation a road map to the future, others find it a “sick text” (Will Self, Revelations, 381). Biblical scholar Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza may have it right when she notes: The Book of Revelation remains for many Christians a book with “seven seals,” seldom read and often relegated to a curiosity in the Bible. For others it has become the book of the New Testament, full of predictions for the future and revelations about the present. (The Book of Revelation: justice and judgment, 1) While we may discover some things in this work that we find unlikable, and perhaps even in tension with the gospel we have come to know in Jesus as the Christ, I hope our reading of it will prove helpful for our lives. That’s the intent and hope of Scripture, to shape our lives, to bring us into a deeper relationship with God through Jesus Christ, to make us more whole, to encourage us to heal the world. I trust Revelation can be Scripture for us, even if it is difficult and can be interpreted in ways that are peculiarly unhelpful. We need to read it for its potential benefit as Scripture and we need to read it to counter the misinterpretations which lead not toward God’s dream for the world, but toward a more nightmare vision of a God of violent, destructive anger. John Dominic Crossan argues that the normalcy of violent conquest creeps into The Book of Revelation. My basic criticism of the Christian Bible’s final and climactic book is this: It is one thing to announce, as in Mark’s Little Apocalypse, that there will be a spasmic paroxysm of human violence before the returning Christ. It is another thing to announce, as in John’s Great Apocalypse, that there will be a spasmic paroxysm of divine violence by the returning Chirst…. We Christians still have to choose. (God and Empire, 218)
Frightened? Confused? Intimidated? Don’t be. We are just getting started, but in starting I think we do well to take some measure of the way this book has been used and argued about, and continues to be used and argued about. It can be Scripture for us. The Spirit can speak using these words, but the Spirit speaks most clearly, I think, when we take time to grapple with these issues. In the remainder of this introduction, I want to offer some words about the author, setting and context of this work; say a few words about the type of literature we find in Revelation; and then let a few other voices speak about the potential value of this book.
The author makes no claim to be an apostle or personal disciple of the historical Jesus; rather, he distinguishes himself from the “twelve apostles” (21:14), referring to himself simply as “John” and as a “brother” – that is, a fellow Christian, a servant/slave of Christ who writes prophecy. Vocabulary, style, and content indicate that he is a different person from the author of the Gospel of John. Instead the author was a Christian prophet. Nothing further is known about him except what can be inferred from Revelation itself. The Greek style suggests that he was a Palestinian Christian who emigrated to Asia. (New Interpreters Study Bible) This Palestinian Christian, John, was probably “a pastoral leader in the churches of Asia Minor who knew their situation well, an inspired traveling preacher who normally would have delivered his message in their worship services. He has been arrested and deported to the island of Patmos because of his preaching activities.” (People’s New Testament Commentary)
John, this traveling preacher, early Christian leader has been exiled to the island of Patmos and from there writes and sends out this work. It is a letter, and more will be said about this later. What is happening in the churches to which John writes? It seems that the churches to which John writes are experiencing distress, harassment and persecution of some kind. They are being treated as “a marginalized community of outsiders in Greco-Roman urban culture” (New Interpreters Study Bible). While there is little evidence of widespread official Roman persecution of the church in the first century (Nero, 54-68 CE vigorously persecuted Christians in Rome, but there was little persecution beyond this) the emperor Domitian (81-96) engaged in some actions hostile to those who did not follow the official religion. Domitian executed opponents, was monarchical and authoritarian in his rule, and referred to himself as Lord and God. The tone of his reign could certainly have encouraged local harassment and persecution, even executions of people of Christian faith. John himself has been a victim of such harassment/persecution.
Into this situation, John writes his letter. “Revelation has the framework of a pastoral letter filled with apocalyptic content” (New Interpreters Study Bible). Both these identities are important in trying to understand Revelation. Many of the images used refer to the current situation of those to whom the letter is addressed. One reason for coded language is that the work criticizes the empire, and that could lead to detrimental consequences. The realization that Revelation is a letter removes much of the mystery about how to approach it…. Revelation is to be read as a message to other people, in the first century, a letter they understood, but that requires some explanation before the modern reader can understand it. (People’s New Testament Commentary)
The apocalyptic nature of the work is also important. The very title “Revelation” translates the Greek word “apokalypsis” from which we derive our words “apocalyptic” and “apocalypse.” Let me use again paragraphs about “eschatology” and “apocalyptic” that I used when we read apocalyptic literature in the gospels. I will then elaborate on apocalyptic literature further.
Eschatology: Marcus Borg does a good job in his book Jesus discussing this topic. A theory many scholars maintained throughout the twentieth century was that Jesus believed and taught an “imminent eschatology.” “Imminent eschatology means that Jesus expected a dramatic supernatural intervention by God in the very near future that would establish the kingdom of God” (254). There is some significant and solid biblical evidence for this. One difficulty in holding this position is that it would mean that Jesus was wrong. Borg argues that even if Jesus believed and preached an imminent eschatology, it was a secondary theme. Borg argues that Jesus’ primary theme would have been a “participatory eschatology.” Jesus called people to participate in the coming of the kingdom. There is solid evidence for this position as well. Borg’s own words are helpful. Does participatory eschatology mean that Jesus thought the kingdom of God, God’s dream, would come about through human political achievement? By no means. I do not imagine that he thought that. It is always God’s kingdom, God’s dream, God’s will. And it involves a deep centering in the God whom Jesus knew. So did he think God would bring in the kingdom without our involvement? I do not imagine this either. Indeed, the choice between “God does it” or “we do it” is a misleading and inappropriate dichotomy. In St. Augustine’s magnificent aphorism, “God without us will not; and we without God cannot.” (260) Whatever “the end” looks like finally, and whenever it may come, the important point is that we are invited to work toward God’s dream for the world, not speculate on “end times signs.”
Apocalyptic: Recall that apocalyptic literature had as its central conviction that God’s deliverance will arrive after a time of intense suffering. That is the most important theme. Beyond the symbolic language and metaphoric timetables, there is a deep conviction of faith “namely, what has begun in Jesus will triumph, despite the tumult and resistance of this world” (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week, 83). Again, it seems a misplacement of energy to spend too much time speculating on the meaning of all the symbols (remember this when we get to “Revelation”). We do better to align our lives with what God was up to in Jesus.
Eschatology has to do with last things or endings. Apocalyptic refers to something hidden being revealed. In the New Testament, apocalyptic literature was also most often eschatological literature, that is, it is a literature that has to do with revealing something about the last things.
As a literary genre, apocalyptic designates the revelation of mysteries of the transcendent world, either cosmic information about how the universe works or information about the future destiny of the world. Such literature was common in many circles of First-century Judaism and Christianity. John adopts the style and imagery of apocalyptic literature and makes it a vehicle of his distinctive Christian message. The form and imagery, so strange to modern readers, were traditional and conventional to him and his reader…. Apocalyptic imagery did not seem grotesque or weird to the ancient reader. (New Interpreters Study Bible)
Here are some of the typical features of apocalyptic literature (from New Interpters Study Bible):
• “The transcendent world is represented in symbolic language.”
• “The perception of all reality in dualistic terms, in which good and evil, light and darkness, truth and falsehood, God and Satan, are all sharply contrasted.”
• “The expectation of the near end of history in which the kingdom of God will triumph.”
Reading The Book of Revelation is no simple matter. Will it be worth our effort? I share some testimonies from others of the meaning and value of this work for those seeking to live the Christian faith in any age.
The best way to begin to grasp what Revelation has to say to the contemporary church is to gather in a worship setting, join briefly in praise and prayer, then have a good reader (or several) read aloud the whole text without interruption or comment…. Discussions and books about Revelation will be of little help without an encounter with the content of the book as a whole, which presents the reader with a vision of the risen Christ that leads through a series of disasters to pictures of the final triumph of God’s kingdom. (People’s New Testament Commentary)
This same author, Eugene Boring, writes the commentary for The New Interpreters Study Bible and there he offers these words: One aspect of John’s intent pertains to the choice faced by Christians living in the cities of Asia Minor who must decide whether to orient their lives to the earthly rebellious city (Babylon) or to the eschatological city in which God rules (New Jerusalem). Similar choices face Christians in any age – where do our ultimate allegiances lie?
Dr. Boring thinks we grasp some part of Revelation best in the context of worship. Eugene Peterson, in his introduction to Revelation in The Message also considers worship an important aspect of understanding Revelation. The Bible ends with a bang: dreams, songs, doom and deliverance, terror and triumph. The color, the sounds, the image, the passion, leave us staggering. But if we keep reading, we begin to figure out the rhythms, we begin to see the whole picture, and we begin to realize that we are part of a very large picture full of color and texture and beauty. And the moment we begin to see – really see – we find ourselves doing worship. John of Patmos, a pastor of the late first century, has worship on his mind…. Worship is our response to a living God…. As the Revelation makes clear, worship must take place in the midst of hostility and hate…. John’s Revelation is not easy reading. Besides being a pastor, John is a poet, so his words become symbolic and difficult, but his passion to bring us into the presence of Jesus comes through loud and clear…. By the time we are done reading, our minds and our imaginations have been given new life, and we cannot help but worship God with passion and joy.
Kathleen Norris, herself a poet has a deep appreciation for this work (from her essay in Revelations). I love this unlovable book for many reasons. It’s a pretty good description of the writing process – crazed angels directing you to write, and not write, and to eat words that taste sweet in the mouth but soon turn to gall…. You write it out as best you can, letting the images and symbols fly, and then the fools interpret it literally, arguing over what everything “means.” I am attracted to Revelation also because it was Emily Dickinson’s favorite book of the Bible, and because it takes a stand in favor of singing. In fact, it proclaims that when all is said and done, of the considerable noises human beings are capable of, it is singing that will endure. A new song – if you can imagine – and light will be what remains…. This is a poet’s book, which is probably the best argument for reclaiming it from fundamentalists. It doesn’t tell, it shows, over and over again, its images unfolding, pushing hard against the lines of language and metaphor, engaging the listener in a tale that has the satisfying yet unsettling logic of a dream…. More than any other book of the Christian Bible, Revelation has suffered from bad interpretation; solipsistic, short-sighted, cruel. Cruelty is not a distinguishing feature of the book itself; rather, it describes in stark terms the world we have made and boldly asserts that our cruelties and injustices will not have the last word…. It is a healing vision, meant to give us hope. God’s wrath is stirred by what we have done to the world he made, and that’s the good news. God intends to take our mess and make it come out right…. The book embraces a great psychological truth, that the crises and apocalypses of our lives are not meant to beat us into submission so much as to give us room to change and grow. But we usually don’t rise to the challenge…. Revelation uncovers the world as it is and reveals to us our true condition. And John insists that, despite ourselves, God wills to restore this world to a beauty we can scarcely imagine. I encourage you to find and read Norris’ essay in its entirety.
One final word of introduction. The Book of Revelation is a crucial text for helping us see God’s life in our world. For that we must reclaim this text from fundamentalists. Revelation takes us on a journey… into the heart of God, a journey into the heart of our world…. It teaches us to challenge oppression and to look for signs of hope, even when evil seems overpowering. It gives us an urgent vision for our future in which God dwells with us, on earth. This is a vision that can guide us in a post-September 11 world. A river of life flows through the Bible and the book of Revelation, a river flowing from the throne of God to bring healing to our world. Revelation offers its wondrous water of life as a gift to all who are thirsty for God’s presence. (Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed)
Both Norris and Rossing take issue with “fundamentalists.” I think their issue is with premillennialist dispensationalism, which is often a part of a fundamentalist Christianity. Those who hold to a premillenialist dispensationalist interpretation of Revelation are brothers and sisters in Christ, and their interpretation no doubt quenches a spiritual thirst. But I would suggest that such an interpretation of Revelation offers only a trickle of living water to only a few, when its intention is to offer springs of living water to a parched world. Can this book really sing? Can living waters of the Spirit flow from it? Let’s find out.