Understanding Revelation: A Call to Faithfulness (Chapters 1-3)

St. Augustine wrote, “Now in this book called the Apocalypse there are, to be sure, many obscure statements, designed to exercise the mind.” And so we begin our exploration into the many obscure statements of Revelation that will do more than exercise our minds. Revelation is a book that at times stretches us, at other times confounds us, but always speaks hope into our lives and leads us on a journey pursuing faithfulness to the Kingdom of God.

As Revelation begins, the text highlights two ideas – that John clearly understands his visions as something revealed by God, and that God intends for John to take on the prophetic duty of delivering that message. These days, prophecy is often understood primarily, or at times, exclusively, as foretellings or predictions of the future, and therefore, a prophet is seen as someone who predicts the future. While speaking of future events can certainly be an aspect of the prophetic task, a prophet is someone who is tasked with delivering God’s message to a particular people in a particular time and place. John understood his message to be directed towards the Christians of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) during the first century – and John clearly states in chapter 1 that he is not speaking of some distant time in the future, but of a time in the near future when the suffering and persecution of the Christians of Asia minor would come to an end. Keeping in mind John’s prophetic task to convey God’s message to a particular persecuted people can help us in understanding the purpose of Revelation – and accordingly, how we, as 21st century Christians in America, can responsibly read and interpret John’s words for today.

Jesus and Seven Lampstands
Illustration from the Bamberg Apocalypse of the Son of Man among the seven lampstands.

In the first chapter, John names the audience of his letter, but more importantly, he discloses the identity and nature of the one who is revealing the message to him. When God speaks to John, God reveals some key things about the fundamental nature of God – God is Alpha and Omega, first, and last, beginning, and the end. In other words, all of creation finds its ultimate existence, meaning, and purpose in God – what God began, God will complete. God is also named Almighty – the supreme ruler – the only one God’s people should serve. In these few words of Revelation 1:8, the recipient of this message hears these two major themes that are emphasized over and over again throughout Revelation: that God will bring to completion the work that he began, and that God is the only one worthy of allegiance.

John also gives us a vision of the exalted Jesus Christ – and here he doesn’t look like the gentle, pastoral Jesus we are used to seeing. Here, he is depicted as a blazing and brilliant vision – triumphant, and even a bit scary. He’s depicted as having a voice like rushing waters, with a sharp, double-edged sword coming from his mouth. The exalted Jesus proclaims that he lives and that he holds the keys of death. While the depiction of the exalted Christ is somewhat terrifying, John reveals to us that ultimately, Christ has conquered death and stands triumphant over it; therefore, Christians need not fear death because Christ frees them from the constraints of death. This triumphant Christ is an image of hope to faithful Christians who face the prospect of death at the hands of empire, and this Christ has a message he wants John to share with seven churches in Asia Minor.

Seven Churches MapChapters 2-3 consist of these specific messages to seven churches of Asia Minor. Each letter follows a basic pattern:

  1. Identification of the church being addressed
  2. Identification of the one sending the message
  3. Words of praise
  4. Admonitions/criticism
  5. An exhortation to faithfulness
  6. A promise to the one who remains faithful

Each letter addresses issues of cultural accommodation and faithfulness. Ultimately, each of the seven churches are presented with these questions: What does it mean to be in the world, but not of the world? How much compromise with non-Christian beliefs or practices is ok? What does faithfulness look like, and what is the cost? What distinguishes Christianity from the rest of the world?

While John directed these questions to a particular people in a particular time in place, these questions speak to us today as well. Mitchell G. Reddish says it well in his commentary on Revelation:

“Cultural accommodation is as much a danger in modern society as it was the in first century, perhaps even more so. Whereas John’s readers could readily perceive a difference between their beliefs and practices and those of the larger Roman society, modern culture (particularly in the United States) is often seen as being “Christian,” or at least sympathetic to Christianity. As such, the institutions and structures of society are viewed as “Christian” institutions and structures. Democracy and capitalism are viewed as biblical ideals. America itself becomes the new “promised land.” To fight for Western values and ideas is equated with fighting for Christian values. In such a setting, the danger of Christianity losing its “otherness” is very strong. The challenge for the church is to find a way to be a part of the society in which it lives without losing its otherness.”

These may be hard words for us to hear, especially when there are many wonderful things about being a part of the society in which we live. We enjoy many freedoms, and there are impulses within our society that I do believe align with the nature of God’s kingdom, which we see wherever we strive to care for the vulnerable, to lift up the forgotten, and to champion the oppressed. While I believe the best our society has to offer is rooted in the love of Christ, there is also much within today’s empire that seeks to squash out his kingdom. Just as Christians living under the Roman empire were forced to choose between faithfulness to God’s kingdom and bowing down to the values of the Roman empire, there are times, where, as Christians, we are forced to choose between faithfulness to the kingdom of God or bowing down to the values of today’s ruling powers, which in many cases are cloaked in the language of Christianity, but bear very little resemblance to the values of Jesus. In some ways, it was easier for these early Christians addressed in Revelation to see the distinctions between the values of empire and the values of God’s kingdom because the two were clearly separate entities. The waters became much murkier after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire a couple of centuries later, and the waters have been murky for us ever since. Ultimately, as the exalted Christ says in Revelation 1:6, the church is called to be a “kingdom of priests serving his God and Father.” In other words, the church is supposed to be distinct and set apart, with a call to remain faithful above all else. We’ll talk more specifically about these ideas in the next entry – for both the early church and for the church today – where we look at chapters 4-5 and the visions of the heavenly throne room.

Again, in these posts, we can’t dive as deeply as we are able to in the study, but I hope you will read chapters 1-3 and listen for these themes and ideas, and ponder them in your heart! May we each hear and discern God’s call to faithfulness and have the courage to heed that call.

Also, if you haven’t yet read the introductory blog post, you can find it here.

Understanding Revelation: A Brief Background

When I was in 8th grade, my CCD (Catholic catechism) teacher had us read Revelation. I don’t remember much, but I remember being terrified. He taught us that Revelation depicted things that would happen to Christians in the end times, and he did not teach us any skills to interpret Scripture in any way other than a literal way (which I should say is not the norm for the Catholic Church). As a 13-year-old, I became incredibly fearful of Revelation and I refused to read it again until much later, when I was in college. Thankfully, by then, I was given a better framework for understanding Revelation and how to responsibly read it as a Christian.

Image result for christ in majesty national shrine revelation
Christ in Majesty, Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC

Revelation can be a frightening and overwhelming book of the Bible, and it is almost certainly one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted books of the Bible. It seems like every other day, we hear news of some person or group predicting the end of the world based on their interpretation of Revelation. It seems like every other day, someone is making conjecture that event x, y, or z is a sign that the end is imminent.

Revelation is a particular genre of writing called apocalyptic literature, which comes from the Greek word “apokalypsis,” meaning “revelation.” Apocalyptic literature is a unique style of writing that is not very common in the Bible. It is not meant to be read in the same way as the Gospels, or the Epistles, the Prophets, the Wisdom literature, or any other genre found in the Bible.

Apocalyptic literature is meant to do several things:

  1. to reveal truth to a human recipient
  2. to act as a response to some crisis, real or imagined – social, political, theological, existential
  3. to give comfort and hope to people who were overwhelmed, confused, frightened, or persecuted
  4. to assert an alternative understanding of the world and to emphasize God’s ultimate victory
  5. to protest against the prevailing worldview of the dominant culture

In order to accomplish its purposes, apocalyptic literature is characterized by a few traits:

  1. a cosmic struggle between good and evil where the good will ultimately triumph
  2. heavy reliance upon symbols – creatures, numbers, etc.
  3. highly dramatized scenes filled with other-worldly visions

Revelation was written in the late 1st century, in a context where Christians were in the minority; a time well before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire. It was written in a time, where, in fact, Rome saw Christians as a subversive threat to the empire because they refused to participate in ritual worship of the emperor as a divine being (the imperial cult), something required of all citizens. Christians were faced with the dilemma of either conforming to or resisting the obligations of empire. For those who chose to resist and disobey, the cost was extreme hardship, and often execution. John’s visions in Revelation were meant to convey hope to these early Christians and to urge them to continue living faithfully, even under the threat of persecution and death.

Though the strange symbolism of Revelation can make it hard to understand, several themes emerge throughout the book:

  1. The sovereignty of God – God as the ultimate power in the universe; the one who creates and the one who brings it to completion
  2. Radical monotheism – no power on earth or heaven is worthy of allegiance but God alone
  3. Exalted Christology – Christ shares the heavenly throne with God and is the object of heavenly and earthly worship
  4. Salvation – Emphasis on God’s care for the world and its inhabitants, yearning to provide health, wholeness, peace, security; in other words, salvation for all creation
  5. Judgment and warning – those who would be the people of God must be obedient to God
  6. Non-violent lifestyle – Jesus conquers not by violence, but by his own death; not by a sword but a cross. The only conquering that is consistent with the values of God is conquering that occurs through self-sacrifice and love
  7. Hope – God, not death, will have the last word, and God is always present with God’s people; the way things are is not the way things will always be

As we go through the text, we’ll be able to see these themes articulated. It is my hope that we will all come to a deeper understanding of God’s saving work and the demands of Christian discipleship; not only for the original hearers of Revelation, but also for us today.

Sources that I am using to direct this current study of Revelation include (though may not be limited to) are:

So – now that I’ve shared a brief background to Revelation, in the next post, we’ll dive into the text and look at Revelation 1-3!

A note: I will not be addressing the popular theology known as dispensationalism in anything other than an occasional and superficial way. Dispensationalism includes the ideas of rapture of believers and tribulation for those left behind as literal experiences that the world has yet to face (as depicted in fiction like the Left Behind series). Dispensationalism was made popular by an Anglican priest-turned-sectarian of the 19th century named John Nelson Darby, and further developed by Cyrus Scofield, the author of the Scofield Reference Bible. While dispensationalism has made its way into some evangelical theology, in many ways, it often misconstrues Scripture, leans towards a literal and futurist interpretation only, and tends to view the whole of the Bible through the lens of the end times. There is not room for me to adequately unpack the issues with dispensationalism in this blog series without detracting from the things I believe are important to highlight in Revelation. If you are interested in reading a good synopsis of the rise of this theology and why it is problematic, read End Times: Rapture, Antichrist, Millenium by James M. Efird. It is a short and concise book (96 pages) that does an excellent job of explaining the rise of dispensationalism and its theological and biblical issues. Over the coming weeks, I hope to share another way to understand Revelation – one that is both theologically and biblically sound, grounded in the tradition of the Church and in faithful scholarship.

Squashing Spiders, Squashing One Another

Image result for spiderThis morning something TERRIBLE happened on my way to Bible study. There I was, driving along, and then all of a sudden, I saw these legs and this body slowly lowering itself down right in front of my face. A SPIDER. What nerve of this creature to drop down in front of me while driving! Who did he think he was? Thankfully, I was driving slowly on a side street at the time, because I proceeded to freak out, flailing my arms around, fidgeting in my seat, looking for the closest thing I could find to get the spider away from me. I proceeded to flick it onto the dashboard, and then grabbed a napkin from my glove compartment, and I squashed that sucker. I squashed him good. All of this happened within a few seconds. But as soon as I squashed the spider, this thought crept into my mind, unbidden: “Why did I have to go and kill it?”

I was bothered by the fact that my gut instinct was to squash the creature who was doing nothing but going about his spidery business, just as God created him to do. As I thought about the question that had crept into my mind, I thought to myself, “I killed it because I’m scared of it.” In squashing the spider, I exhibited a most basic human response – to eliminate that which we fear. I went on to Bible study and left that thought on the back burner, but now it has come back to the front of my mind.

Fear seems to be the great motivator these days. I feel it all around me. And all around me, I sense a desire to squash that which we don’t understand; to squash that which causes us to fear. The rhetoric in our country increasingly reflects the desire to squash that which we fear. There is an ever-increasing polarization taking place – we see this exemplified between the political left and right, we see this exemplified between conservative and progressive churches, we see this exemplified in the struggle to come to terms with our racial history and identity as a country. We see this exemplified in so many arenas of life.

Where is the dialogue? Where is the deep listening? Where are we recognizing and honoring the image of Christ in one another? Those things seem to have been thrown out the window in favor of our baser human instinct to squash one another through a barrage of disgust and hateful words.

James 1:19-20, 26-27 says this: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires…. Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight reign on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

It seems to me that the opposite is so often true – we, myself included, become angry or offended quickly, and want to jump in with our opinions or moral outrage, and in doing so, we remove any opportunity to deeply listen to one another. We want to squash our opposition because we don’t want to entertain the thought that we might have something to learn from them. We are afraid of what that might mean for how we live our lives.

For those of us who profess faith in Christ, he calls us to a different path than the path we now find ourselves on as a country. Christ calls us to be deep listeners to one another, and to truly hear the vulnerabilities and the injustices that plague our world, even when we, ourselves, may have little to no personal experience of those injustices. As James writes, true religion is caring for the orphan and the widow – in other words, the least of these. This is not convenient or easy, and it can, in fact, be very uncomfortable for those who are not at the margins of society.

This morning I read an article about the need for white Christians to invest in really learning about racism in our country – past and present. Personally, I believe racism is still one of the biggest issues in our country today, but there is so much contention over whether or not that is true. I absolutely understand the impulse to say that it’s not such a big deal these days – and that is easy for someone like me to say, since I don’t experience the injustices that many in our country do. And for so many of us, we simply want to squash an alternative narrative that suggests otherwise – that racism is still very present. To acknowledge that racism is a real and active evil means that we have to change, even those of us who believe that we do not exhibit characteristics of racism or prejudice – and not just superficially, but deeply. And that is a scary prospect.

I keep thinking about the spider I killed this morning. I wish I hadn’t. I wish I had slowed down and taken the time to approach it differently. But I can’t undo it now, it’s dead.

Image result for listeningWe cannot continue on the path of fast anger and loose tongues, unleashed to squash one another, but we still have time to choose to act differently toward one another and to embrace a posture of deep listening to those we do not understand; to those whom we fear. I too, am learning that I need to take James’ words to heart. All too often, I want to share the first thing that comes to my mind – I want to express disgust and moral outrage over so many things. I want to drown out those with whom I disagree. I want to squash their views and promote mine. But that gets us nowhere good. Today, may we all take these words to heart: let us be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, and may we seek to listen to one another and see one another through the eyes of Jesus Christ.