• First, a Deep Breath…
This is one of the most controversial and most misused books in Scripture. It is what is known as “apocalyptic literature” – we’ve read just a snippet of this type – Mark 13 is the other NT example of the genre, but it passes so quickly few are very troubled by it. Apocalyptic has come to mean: “end times destruction,” but it is really about “things hidden and revealed” (hence, Revelation). This genre was popular in Jewish literature in the 1st Century and had been a few centuries earlier. Daniel chapters 7-12 along with some passages in Ezekiel are other Biblical examples – and Revelation draws on them heavily.
These days there seem to be two predominant ways Revelation is read – either not at all – or almost exclusively and in the later, usually somewhat fanatically. As a United Methodists in the Wesleyan tradition, I think we need to understand this book and how to interpret it with a focus on grace, faith and joy.
One of the reasons I think its important to know what this text does (and does not) actually say is to be able to sort out and challenge things like the rumored big Hollywood reboot of the “Left Behind” film franchise, now to star Nicolas Cage! (sigh).
Ironically, two of the key things that are prominent in that version and thus, that most people “know” about this book are not actually in it. One: The idea of “rapture” was developed (in the late 1800’s!) from a snippet of Paul’s language in 1 Thessalonians. Two: a singular “Anti-Christ” – which is a concept imported in a distorted way from the letter 1st John.
We begin our reading today with a light read – the first 3 chapters consist of an introduction to the visions and letters to 7 churches. Some have taken these letters as descriptive of ages of the Church universal, but I would argue it is more descriptive of the range of human and communal response to God – at times we each probably fall into all these categories, and the purpose of this visions series is to call us to reflect on that and deepen our commitment.
Tomorrow will be a long reading taking in nearly all the horror of the book – that is intentional as I invite to you compare what is written to the series of plagues in Exodus and to encounter this much like you would the violence of an action movie – not dwelling on each individual film cell for meaning but being almost overwhelmed by the sheer spectacle and emotion of it. I’ll say more tomorrow – but note well that these visions are not necessarily sequential, but overlap and view the same message from different distances.
Finally, on Wednesday we’ll have another shorter reading that focuses on the crucial promise of the book – the message of hope and peace that our popular treatments somehow never quite get around to celebrating.
• When and Where
This is the last book in the canon, in large part for the way it ends with a restored “garden” – but it is certainly not the last book of the canon to have been written. The two main arguments for dating Revelation hinge on its reports of persecutions, so the mid 60’s (Nero) or mid 90’s (Domitian). But both of these persecutions were rather limited in scope and did not really affect Asia Minor. Most scholars consider the persecutions mentioned to be sporadic, local events. Since the warnings to the churches we’ll read today seem to be aimed at 2nd or even 3rd generation churches for whom accommodation to the dominant culture is underway, most scholars consider it to have been written no earlier than the mid-90’s and possibly into the early 100’s.
Its authorship is contested, while tradition suggests the disciple John wrote it, the text does not make this claim. As early as 260AD, direct apostolic authorship was rejected, based on the style and sophistication of the Greek of the two texts, but St. Dionysius and others noting this agreed it was a “holy and inspired” text. Others have not thought so. Martin Luther, for example, wanted to throw it out (at least until he found ways to use its imagery against Catholics, who in turn used it against him and other reformers). It narrowly found its way into the canon in the first place, but did so in large part because of how it brings the story full circle, back to a restored garden, a new heaven and a new earth with redeemed humanity living once again in God’s full presence. Sadly, most readings get caught up in the scenes of strife and division instead of focusing on that final vision of wholeness and renewal.
• Key Insights
The text identifies itself as a vision (or series of visions) experienced by a man called John on the island of Patmos. We should take that seriously – these are visions. The apocalyptic understanding of “prophecy” differs from our common usage. It is not simply about “predicting the future” That is one minor aspect of OT Prophets – who warned of what “would happen” unless the people changed their ways. But in apocalyptic writing, the situation is found to be too dire for people’s changes to avoid disaster, rather the only hope is for God to act – and yet the genre functions to encourage the faithful. In the face of overwhelming odds and seeming hopelessness, there is hope.
One need not take the visions literally to find and claim the hope proclaimed. As an example, stories are told of German pastors during WWII, with SS officers in the front row, finding in this text a way to proclaim hope in Christ and a challenge to the 3rd Reich in a way that was dismissed by those not steeped in the OT imagery as insane ramblings rather than causing an arrest – it may well be that a similar kind of dynamic was in play for the original author and audience.
• Big Picture
Note the key differences in theology from the Gospel of John in which the parousia – the presence of the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ is with us – now and always! Here that presence is absent, God will come, and soon, but is not with his people now. Quoting a scholar named Horace Weaver “I align myself with the forth Gospel in its strong argument that the Risen Lord has already come, and is with us now. He came when he was resurrected; and was known as free from time and space in that ascension. The danger of waiting for a far off time for his calling us to the skies is the danger of not even knowing that we should be aware of his presence now.”
Many like to make a false distinction that the OT God is angry and distant while the NT God is loving and gentle. Revelation clearly complicates such an argument. I find Revelation a helpful text in the way it challenges me to think about God’s anger at sin and the importance of staying true to convictions I’m sure are true even if the whole world seems to be going another way. Like many OT texts, Revelation is challenging. I value that because it is a reminder for me not to be too sure, or too comfortable in my understanding of all of Scripture – yet at the same time, this text and it’s imagery need not overwhelm the passages of God, revealed in Christ, as one who suffers with and wills wholeness, not destruction.
Blessings on your reading!