So friends, you might know that I have a bit of a soft spot for the Book of Revelation. I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite, but I feel bad for the poor thing; it is so terribly misunderstood, and so misused. And really, it’s a pretty awesome book. It’s social justice-y and epic and it has these images of God that are breathtakingly beautiful. (God planting a tree that will be healing for all the nations? Wow, I just love that.) Mostly, though, people just use it to talk about God hating people, or God sending people to hell, or how bad the world is, or when the horrible world God hates is finally going to be destroyed. That, or people who find those ideas disdainful just don’t read it at all. Thankfully, there is a great little book written by the inimitable Bruce Metzger that is incredibly helpful in clearing up many of the misconceptions which abound. It’s called Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation and I can’t recommend it highly enough. (You can also order a kit, which includes a leader guide, perfect for small group study which would be SO GREAT for you to do.) Tomorrow I’m going to do a small slice of exegesis as an example of how, when understood correctly, Revelation is less scary and more awesome and wise. But today, I wanted to share some basic overview points, which will get us on the right track. Metzger mentions these throughout, as do many good commentaries on the subject.
So, here are some things to keep in mind while you read Revelation:
1. Revelation was written in a time of persecution, for a deeply persecuted church. It’s not dramatic for nothing, is what I’m saying. There were big things at stake. People were dying, the church was under heavy fire. Christians were fearful of how and whether their movement would survive such a sweeping attack. Some scholars differ on which time of persecution this was, actually, because there were two sections of time that were pretty hideous. The first was under the Emperor Nero, who had what can only be called a sadistic hatred of Christians. How bad was it? The Roman historian (Note: a ROMAN one, meaning, the same as Nero, and not a Christian) Tacitus said this: “a vast multitude of Christians were not only put to death, but put to death with insult. They were either clothed in the skins of wild beasts and then exposed in the arena to the attacks of half-famished dogs or else dipped in tar and put on crosses to be set on fire, and, when the daylight failed, to be burned as lights by night” (Annals XV, p. 44). So, pretty bad then. (Let’s remember this come Christmastime when some Christians will shout persecution about which stores put up “seasons greetings” signs. Whatever that is, it ain’t persecution.) Tacitus notes that even non-Christians were horrified and began asking Nero to stop. So, that mark of the beast business? That is Nero. In addition to 666 being the number of greatest imperfection (7 is perfect, so 6×3? That’s way imperfect), it’s also a cryptogram, which means it symbolizes numbers AND letters. Nero’s name adds up to the number 666. Mystery solved. (It also adds up to 616, which is the other number on some manuscripts. So either way, it’s Nero.)
The other Emperor was Domitian, whose persecutions hit their peak about 20 years after Nero’s. Domition’s was perhaps not as horrific, but was far more reaching. While Nero kept to Rome, Domition required everyone in the Empire to proclaim him “our lord and god.” Obviously, for Christians this was a problem. And the idea of being an enemy of the Empire after watching what Nero had done had to be all kinds of terrifying.
Revelation is not an “ordinary time” kind of book. It isn’t trying to get those of us in free religion America all riled up without cause-and we make a mockery of our faith’s true martyrs when we do. For just this reason, Revelation is going to feel odd to us when we read it. It might feel overdone, overzealous, maybe extreme. That’s fine. We are not being tarred and lit on fire, so that’s probably the most normal response. But we can find understanding when we see why the book was written, and to whom it was intended.
2. Revelation is not literal, and it’s also not direct. First off, we have to say that the most problematic way to read Revelation is to try to read it literally. I don’t actually know how anyone can do that, but alas, people have tried. From beginning to end, this is a book of symbolic imagery. Part of the reason for that is that it’s not really the brightest idea to write out the Emperor’s name everywhere with a bunch of terrible condemnations of him if you want to stay alive for much longer. John of Patmos was a political prisoner as much as he was a religious one, and he’s a smart guy. He writes in code that his fellow Christians would understand, but that would be unrecognizable to much of the Empire (ie. 666). Other symbolism is biblical. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the book’s symbolism is drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures- 275 of the 404 verses allude to an Old Testament passage.
Revelation is not linear, either, but instead is a repetitive loop of the same things, over and over. It’s not supposed to be read like a timeline, but more like the Jewish practice of turning a diamond to see all the facets from different angles.
So, when you think about it, there are a number of layers of interpretation happening: there’s the symbol itself, and what it represents, and also the parallels or allusions to the symbols that happen in other parts of Scripture, and how those two relate to each other, and also the historical issues going on at the time, and also this cosmic sense of what God will do when history is all said and done. That is a LOT. It’s not direct. It is not a news article. There’s no way you can sit down and read it through once and know what it’s saying. It takes time, and learning the symbols, and considering the whole arc of Scripture, etc. You can decide to let that deter you, or frustrate you, or you can find it cool, kind of like a code letter. Whatever you do, just don’t try to make it literal, or direct. As Metzger so succinctly expresses, “The description does not mean what it says. It means what it means.”
3. The two-fold message of Revelation is resistance and assurance. John’s primary goal in writing this letter was to empower them to have hope, and by that hope, to stand strong in the face of persecution. He gives this rousing, Braveheart-like pep talk, all blue-faced and yelling, to get them riled up enough to resist the long shadows of the Roman Empire. He doesn’t want them to die, but he doesn’t want them to fail or falter or surrender even more. So the message is: Do not give in. Don’t you dare give up. Don’t even think about confessing Domition as your lord and god. Don’t you dare turn your back on your faith. RESIST. Stand strong! You get the message.
And why should they? What on earth gives them any reason to stand against the most powerful empire in the world? This one thing: the promise, the absolute assurance, that God will prevail in the end. That, when it’s all said and done, good will triumph over evil, even the evil of the enormously powerful Rome. John’s words of resistance in the letter are bookended and interspersed with this assurance that God will prevail over all the powers of darkness you ever thought possible.
Resistance and assurance. That’s the goal.
4. Revelation is shockingly peaceful. I know, I know, it gets a terrible reputation of being this war-mongering, violence-filled book, and parts of it are meant to be jarring on purpose. (That’s called “repellant realism,” and boy does John like to use it.) But when you actually take a close look at the symbolism, that’s not what you see. You see judgment, to be sure, but that isn’t the same thing. Take Revelation 5. There are these seven scrolls, and John begins weeping because nobody is fit to open them, and they may therefore never be read. But an angel says to him, “Don’t weep, for the Lion of Judah has conquered, and he can open the scrolls.” And John turns, expecting to see this Lion, this conquering King, maybe even with some vengeance and power flashing in his eyes about to get his wrath on. But that’s not what he sees. He sees, instead, the Lamb of God, still bearing marks of his slaughter. What has allowed the Lion to open the seal isn’t power, or war, or violence, but the self-giving love of God, even unto death. Or, take Revelation 19, when the rider whose name is Faithful and True comes in victorious, wearing a robe dipped in blood. But it is his blood, and no one else’s. Babylon, on the other hand, was drunk off the blood of the martyrs just two chapters before. The distinction is clear.
When Jesus conquers, he only bears one weapon, and that is his Word. That is not accidental. All the other weapons and powers have been destroyed, and all that’s left is the justice of God, the glory of God. And now, the kingdom of God, led by the King of Peace, will reign. Suffering will be no more, death and war and crying will be no more. God will walk with God’s people and the tree of life will be right there for everybody and all the nations will be healed by its leaves. The end of Revelation is not Armageddon but the Kingdom of God, come to earth to stay.
Revelation is meant to call us to action, to keep us honest and strong and faithful, but it’s also meant to remind us that God’s justice will prevail, that good will triumph over evil at the end of all things. Resistance and assurance.
Tomorrow, I’ll take us through the passage of the four horsemen. It’s going to be fun! Come back and join me.