The Book of Revelation (no “s”)

The second Scripture reading through the Easter Season this year is from the most puzzling book of the New Testament, Revelation. So here’s some background. Start by noting that the name of the book (remember the names of Biblical books were assigned by later compilers) comes in this case from the first word in the Greek text: “Apocalupsis”: translated, “The revelation.” It’s singular, not plural: There’s one revelation, not a series of “future facts,” as the book is often misinterpreted (and often misnamed — Revelations). And that one revelation isn’t a forecast about the future — it’s the unveiling of the deeper meaning of the present. Written at a time when the Roman empire was increasing its systematic persecution of Christians (around AD96), John — not the St. John of the Gospels, but an otherwise unknown church leader — writes to encourage the church congregations for which he’s responsible; to tell them, “This calls for the endurance and faithfulness of God’s people.” [Rev 13:9]

How does the writer encourage his people? By telling them a story that will capture their imaginations. He uses the tools at hand — Jewish history, currently-popular imagery and symbolism, and a style not unlike what we’d call science-fiction. (Just as, say, Star Trek and Star Wars are really stories about the present dilemmas we humans face, and not predictions about the future, this is a good way to think about Revelation too.) The story John tells, for all its elaborate imagery, has a simple moral: Whatever happens in the short run of history, in the long run God wins. So trust that you’re on the winning side of history, despite persecution and the apparent power of Rome.

Here’s the way the Book is structured: After brief introductory comments (in the form of “letters”) to each of the local churches for which John is responsible, he describes a vision which gives him a heaven’s-eye view of what’s happening on earth. He sees — as if from God’s perspective — the persecution of Christians by Rome and especially by the idolatrous worship of power and prosperity that the Roman Empire embodies. John describes the Empire symbolically — it’s full of “6s” (which are symbolic of incompleteness, because “7” is symbolically perfect and thus 6 falls short). Only the Kingdom of the Lamb of God — the Risen Christ — has 7s in its inventory. So the structure of the story becomes, “6 tries to impersonate 7, but fails; in the long run, 7 wins.” What John is saying is that the Empire demands loyalty and even worship as if it’s the ultimate power in history; but such demands are false, and to yield to them is idolatry: only the Lamb is truly the Ultimate Lord of history.

The church still reads and prays over Revelation, even 1500 years after the Empire’s fall, because it trusts the “unveiling” of Revelation as always true: In every age there are powers (governmental, economic, social) that pretend to be in charge of history and demand loyal obedience from people. (These powers don’t demand an offering of incense, as Rome did, but they invite or compel other signs of loyalty.) So in every age Christians need to be reminded that only God is in charge of history; only God can satisfy our heart’s desire; only God is worthy of ultimate loyalty. And in every age people whose ultimate loyalty is to God can expect challenge, sanction, and even persecution from pretenders to ultimacy.

Sometimes even faithful Christians misread Revelation as if it tells us what’s around the corner, in the future. That’s a mistake. Revelation tells us what’s under our noses right now, if we have the courage to look — and to bear the consequences of what we see. Until next week, peace.

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