The Book of Revelation is an unwillingness to compromise. To a society whose highest value is supposedly everything in moderation and bi-partisan, centrist politics, Revelation can be abrasive, for it presents to us a dissatisfied G-d and a Messiah who refuses to partake in the death-dealing prosperity of global empire. Instead of locating themselves with moderate footholds to reach the greatest audience, we find G-d and G-d’s Messiah overcoming systems of oppression and domination from the outside in. This is why the interpretation of Revelation has been so incredibly messy.
Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the most well known theologian of all time, believed that the “1000 years” so famous in Revelation began with Jesus’ resurrection; therefore, the entire medieval European community shook in trepidation at the advent of year 1000 as they waited for Satan to be set free. Obviously, there was a sigh of relief when nothing happened. Martin Luther admitted openly that he had no idea what Revelation was really trying to say, and hence, in whatever way anyone interpreted it was fine by him. Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, and Hal Lindsey, on the populist level, convinced millions of people worldwide what the end time would look like with claims that we in fact live in them, defending themselves with the end times “script” of Revelation. The book has contributed to endless speculation.
Catholics identified Luther as the beast; Lutherans said the beast was the Pope. Hitler, Stalin, and nearly every president by one group or another has been labeled “the beast”. While I may not wholly disagree with these estimations, for anyone to conscript the imagery of Revelation into a module for identifying who specifically John had in mind when he prophesied about the beast or the number 666 is to misunderstand the nature of the prophetic and to deny Revelation’s relevance to all Christians who came before us. Folks, we will never be able to say with 100% certainty who exactly “the beast” is. In doing so, we make ourselves into an elite group of people who have the privilege of being the ones John had in mind when he wrote Revelation. If, then, we cannot identify all the symbols in Revelation on a 1-to-1 equivalency basis, how do we read Revelation? How can we 21st century, middle-class, European-Americans (I preached this sermon to Evergreen Mennonite Church who are predominantly this demographic) make sense out of such a mysterious writing?
When I say “apocalypse”, we all have some common ideas in mind: the “world” has ended insofar as the structures, systems, governments, and human organizations that drive the gears of production and consumption are gone. Apocalypse, however, is actually the Greek title of this book, and it means “to unveil” or “to reveal”. Ironically, Revelation has a tendency to obscure or to make things blurry. I hope by the end of this sermon its message is a little more lucid.
Many people call this book “The Revelation of John”, but quite clearly, it is nothing of the sort. V. 1 states right off this is the “Revelation of Jesus Christ”. It is only fitting then that the main character is the Lamb who was slain. Jesus shown as a Lamb has a vast array of symbolic background; it is the dominant image for G-d’s Messiah in Revelation; and it is my favorite image of Jesus.
Though this is the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ, the book’s author is none other than a man named John. Many people claim this “John” is John brother of James, cohort of Peter, author of John the Gospel and 1, 2, 3 John, and one of the 12, but this is most likely not true. The amount of expertise needed, particularly in the field of astronomy and astrology is hardly expected of a peasant fisherman like John son of Zebedee. Moreover, just like it is today, John was an incredibly popular name. Thus, we know very little about this John, but we do know a few things for sure. John wrote from a tiny island off the coast of modern-day Turkey called Patmos. Most likely, he was exiled there. He was a Jewish Christian. One of the oddities about Revelation is that it never explicitly quotes the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, there are more allusions to the Hebrew Bible in Revelation that in any other book of the New Testament. As a result, much of the imagery that would create and evoke powerful emotions is lost since none of us possess a knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures like 1st c. Jewish Christians did. The other unique feature of Revelation is that it does not use the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. This is totally bizarre since that was the standard translation of the day. Instead, the author appears to work out of a Hebrew translation. Every other New Testament book quotes the Greek, but Revelation only alludes to the Hebrew. It is said that John “spoke Bible”. He was steeped so profusely in the Hebrew scriptures that it was impossible for him to avoid this level of allusions. It was in his blood.
Beyond being a Jewish Christian, John is also an astral prophet. 1st c. people firmly believed that events in the sky affected events on the earth. They believed stars were people and planets were gods. Even Christians believed this. John was a person whose vocation was to observe the sky and use it to understand past, present, and forthcoming events. As a prophet, the proclamation of the interpretation of these events was a service to the congregations. Unfortunately, he was exiled to Patmos. His statement that this vision came to him on the Lord’s day (1.10), that is the day of worship, implicates that John’s writing was his fulfillment of his prophetic vocation from afar. Since he would naturally speak all these things to the congregations if he was present with them, we can only assume that this book was intended to be read aloud to the congregations. Revelation was written to be read in large segments aloud to congregations of people. The intensity of its message is only amplified by this style of reading.
More than just being acquainted with John, we need to have a brief but solid conception of John’s social world. The province of Asia Minor where the original churches who received Revelation resided was a critical and prosperous portion of the Roman Empire. Technologically advanced, the cities in Asia Minor hosted medical schools, ship ports, textile industry, and incredible construction projects including one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the temple of Artemis/Diana in Ephesus. What is more, Asia Minor was notorious for the promulgation of the imperial cult. Most emperors did not demand to be worshiped as gods, but the people of Asia Minor praised them as such. The first temple to Emperor Augustus was built in Asia Minor, and the coins circulated there showed how the Roman emperors were considered divine.
John reads and interprets the Roman Empire from the perspective of the Lamb who was slain. Revelation’s lens through which it interprets history is from under the blood of the innocent. That the empire who claimed to bring peace to the whole world crucified the G-d of the universe as a Galilean itinerant preacher and miracle-worker scandalized John, and revealed to him the true nature of empire. When Jesus rose again, he conquered the death-dealing, dehumanizing powers of the empire. This is the revealed Jesus, the apocalypsed Jesus. The revealed Jesus unveiled the empire’s crime: legalized murder. The revealed Jesus realigns perspective. The slaughtered Lamb forces us to lose the viewpoint of the imperial, idolatrous systems of domination because systems like these are compromise. Peace at the cost of killing G-d is no peace at all. The Pax Romana is fraudulent; G-d alone can bring peace; and peace can only come through self-sacrificial love.
With all this in mind, John’s vision becomes clearer. The Roman empire becomes four warring horsemen destroying peasant people with violence and pestilence. The emperors transform into beasts from the sea, and behind it all, evil itself, the fundamental enemy of G-d, drives the gears that make the imperial engine go.
What Does It Mean?
How then should we read? Turning this book into an apocalyptic timeline risks paralyzing its explosiveness. It will serve not as a manifesto for subverting the empire through self-sacrifice, but as an excuse to be complicit with the death-dealing powers of the empire since G-d will win in the end anyway. The opposite problem of reading Revelation as a historical timeline that had cultural relevance then but not now also arrests the shattering effects of John’s vision. The book calls us to convert from being on top and repent of oppression. It calls us to reorient ourselves onto the side of the Lamb that was slain with the positive belief that victory over the death-dealing powers can only come through such an orientation. John puts us face-to-face with a G-d who does not share the throne, and when powerful people rise to a status in which they claim they are sovereign, only one thing can result: the death of the innocent. Such immoral behavior in the name of progress, peace, and hope receives no toleration from G-d who locks up the beasts that possess the audacity to act with such hubris. Meanwhile, we, the people of G-d are called to rescind our participation in this fraudulent peace. Instead, G-d calls us to come and be a part of a different kingdom, a kingdom ruled by the Lamb where no more tears, sorrow, and yes, even death exist.