The Revelation of Jesus Christ

Part I of  the series “The End of the World as We Know It: The Book of Revelation”

World-War-Z-header_0Well, it’s the beginning of a new year. If you’ve been paying attention over the last week or so to the myriad “year in review” shows and articles that always come out this time of year, it would be easy to look back at 2014 and wonder how we made it through. In Time magazine, for example, the person of the year was actually the whole group of doctors and researchers who are fighting the deadly disease of Ebola, which is devastating a few countries in Africa and touched our own shores, sparking no small amount of panic in some places. The rise of ISIS in the Middle East and terrorism at home and abroad continues to concern us with the prospect of rogue states or terror cells getting nuclear weapons that could wipe out millions. Violence and protests over racial issues and policing make the front page news every day.

Australian troops passing through Chateau Wood during the battle of PasschendaelePeople are prone to wonder in times like these whether the end of the world as we know it is coming soon. Hollywood certainly thinks that way. Have you noticed the myriad movies and shows out there now with apocalyptic themes? From the zombie apocalypse of The Walking Dead and World War Z to the dystopian future of the Hunger Games to the rapturous evacuation found in the Left Behind movie, it seems that many people in our culture are walking around like that old man wearing a sandwich board declaring that “The End is Near.”

Actually, that’s a feeling that’s not unique to our generation. A hundred years ago, during the opening of World War I where battle casualty figures were staggering even by our modern standards, the fledgling film industry had already begun exploring such themes and people began to wonder if they were not witnessing Armageddon. In 1918, a great flue epidemic killed millions of people worldwide, which made the end seem even closer. We could recount lots of times throughout history when it looked like the end of the world was imminent and yet, well, here we are.

Christians, of course, have often wondered about this theme at length. The seminary word for it “eschatology” or the study of last things. And in many generations, including ours, one of the places in the Bible we turn to for eschatological inquiry is the Book of Revelation. It’s always been interesting to me that in every church I’ve served when I say to people, what do you want to study they always answer, “Revelation!” Most preachers, on the other hand, try to avoid it. Too controversial, too prone to tick off church members who have their own views about it. But it’s everywhere in the culture and now seems like a good time to take a look at this enigmatic book to discover the message within.

Late-Great-Planet-Earth-1Now, there are lots of people out there with their own Revelation interpretation and making cultural splash with it. Back in the 70s, Hal Lindsay wrote a book titled The Late Great Planet Earth which predicted the end of the world and interpreted the Soviet Union to be “The Beast” of Revelation. Of course, in the late 80s, the Berlin Wall fell and

Lindsay had to go find another beast (note, it was never “us!”—just maybe the President he doesn’t like). Every time there’s a new world crisis he offers up another potential beast—it’s kind of like a “Beast of the Month” club. Lindsey has his spinoffs, however, including the incredibly popular Left Behind series written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins which to date has generated a bunch of books and two really bad movies. On TV you’ve got John Hagee pounding the pulpit and trying to get Jewish control of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem so that the temple can be rebuilt and Jesus can come back.

But is that really what all this is about? Well, keep in mind that Revelation has a long history of interpretation and critique, even though it’s the media savvy ones who get the press. Hal Lindsey and his theological offspring are actually fairly recent on the interpretive stage, being in turn the offspring of 19th century dispensationalists like Dwight L. Moody. They see Revelation as predicting in detail the course of human history until the second coming of Jesus. But other intepreters have seen it differently—that perhaps Revelation is only about what was occurring in John’s day, or that it’s only about the end time, or that it’s some combination of a bunch of different views. You’ll see all of these interpretations out there in one form or another if you’re looking for them.

What you won’t often see or read, however, is an approach to Revelation that really tries to get to the core and context of the book itself. Who wrote it? To whom was it written? What was the situation and occasion for writing? And most importantly, what is the overarching message of the book? Those are some key questions we have to ask when we study any biblical book and nowhere is this more important than in studying Revelation. As we begin the series today, I want to start there and spend some time looking at these important questions—questions that will help us to ask the right questions about this strange book and what it might mean for us. Think of it as taking some of the sensationalism out of the dispensationalism!

johnWe begin with the writer, who is named John. Scholars have debated whether or not this is the same John who was an apostle of Jesus, with opponents noting that it’s a completely different sort of writing than either the Gospel of John or I-III John. Proponents, on the other hand, note some similarity of language and word usage between Revelation and those other works. Some of the internal historical evidence might illuminate the connection even further. The Christian tradition says that John, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, took Jesus’ mother Mary to live with him until she died, after which he went to Ephesus and wrote the Gospel and the three Epistles attributed to him. From there, the second century bishop Irenaeus tells us, John was exiled to Patmos, a desolate island off the coast near Ephesus, during the latter years of the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian. The tradition has him eventually making his way back to Ephesus and dying there in about 98AD. If there’s any truth to the tradition, then it would be no coincidence that the first church John writes to in the second chapter of Revelation is the church in Ephesus—the one he knew the best. Clearly, the writer, whether he was John the apostle or a later John, knew the churches to whom he was writing.

That’s one of the things we miss when studying Revelation—that it’s really a letter and John tells us in verse 3 that it should be read aloud. That’s how all the epistles were distributed in those days—read aloud in the gathering of the whole church. But the point is that it’s not a letter written to us, at least not initially. John has a very specific task to write to specific churches with a specific message. Like with most biblical books, we are simply looking over the shoulders of those first hearers of the words of this book. We have to know what it meant to them before we can ever hope to interpret what it means for us.

SevenChurchesSo, who are these people, the ones who first cracked open the scrolls? John writes to “the seven churches in Asia”—Asia meaning modern day Turkey. This is a pastoral letter that looks something like a bishop writing to a bunch of local churches. We’ll learn more about them in chapter 2, but for now it’s important to know that they are all churches facing crises—crisis from within because of false teaching and crisis from without in the form of persecution from the Roman Empire. Most scholars now place the writing of Revelation in the mid-90sAD, some 20-25 years after Rome had destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple during the Jewish revolt from 66-70AD. Many of the Jews had fled Judea and settled in the region of these churches—an echo of an earlier time in Israel’s history when Babylon had destroyed Jerusalem and the temple and scattered its inhabitants in exile. It’s no wonder, then, that John’s code word for Rome throughout the book is “Babylon.”

Domitian_statue_VaticanAnd the central antagonist of the churches was the Roman emperor. Some scholars want to date Revelation a little earlier, in the 60s, because it seems to refer to the emperor Nero—famous for his persecution of Christians. Internal evidence in Revelation, however, seems to indicate that it’s actually more about the emperor Domitian, who shared a great deal of Nero’s brief legacy of self-aggrandizing deity and debauchery (in fact, the statue of Domitian pictured here is actually believed to have been recut from a statue of Nero—an apt metaphor for the relationship between the two). The cult of the emperor became the de facto Roman religion around the time of Nero, and if Nero thought himself divine, Domitian acted like it. Domitian’s proclamations all began with “Our Lord and God Domitian demands…” At public appearances, such as in the arena, all were to great the emperor with “All hail to our Lord.” Domitian tolerated no dissent to his self-imposed divine rule. When some in the crowd booed his team in the games in the arena, he had them immediately put to death. Anyone who failed to offer their worship to the emperor was either put to death or banished forever. Couple that with his openly promiscuous sexual life, his voracious appetites, and his desire for absolute power and it’s easy to see why living in the empire in the late first century was dangerous for those who claimed Christ as their only Lord and Savior. Indeed, to the thinking of Domitian and the rest of the empire, the early Christians were “atheists” because they would not bow to the cult of the emperor.

So, given the climate, what were your options if you were a member of one of these churches? Eugene Boring says that there were six: 1) You could quit being a Christian, take the path of least resistance, and bow to Rome. Many took this option and John will not have anything good to say about them in Revelation; 2) You could lie, worshipping the emperor in public and worshipping Jesus in private; 3) You could fight, but the destruction of Jerusalem had already proven the fruitlessness of that action; 4) You could try to change the law—impossible in a dictatorship. 5) You could adjust, accommodating your beliefs to the culture and combining worship of the emperor and the Roman dream with a little Jesus overlay. You could insist that there be no such thing as intolerance and exclusion and adapt your Christian faith to the civil religion of the culture. Or, 5) You could die. You could bear witness to Christ as the world’s true Lord and live out that reality in your life even if it meant death at the hands of Rome. In other words, you could die in the same way that Jesus did. This, for John, is the only real Christian response.

Now, if that were the only message then Revelation would be an incredibly depressing book, which is what many have made it into. But at its core, John’s letter to the churches is one of hope, encouraging them to hold up under the stress of the time and inviting them to imagine a different reality than the one that confronts them every day. In his vision, John pulls back the curtain to show them that the heavenly reality, God’s rule and reign on earth and in heaven, is not far away but all around them. John reveals a thin place for his churches, a vision of heaven and earth coming together. Ultimately, this is John’s vision for the end of everything. Not the end of the world so much as the end of the world as they, and we, now know it.

But John is going to reveal this to them as a vision using symbols that the churches, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, can understand. While Revelation is an epistle, it also uses a genre of literature called “apocalyptic.” We now use that word to describe the end, but in John’s day it was a way of expressing things, even present things, symbolically. The best modern parallel is a political cartoon.

elephant-donkey-boxing-thumb1-281x300For example, if I show you a picture of an elephant and a donkey duking it out, you know what the symbols mean. Now, we don’t assume that donkeys and elephants are literally having boxing matches somewhere out there today (though that would be fascinating). We understand the symbols and get the meaning from them—symbols that point to a bigger reality. But if you were looking at political cartoons from, say, France in the early 19th century you probably wouldn’t understand them because you don’t know what the symbols mean.

The same is true for unlocking the meaning of Revelation. John uses a variety of Jewish and contemporary symbols that would have been accessible to people in his day but are strange in ours. We make a mistake if we try to take them all literally or if we assign meaning to these symbols without understanding them in their first century context. Unfortunately, that sort of misuse and abuse of John’s revelation has led to a lot of lousy theology and a lot of embarrassed so-called prophets who keep predicting events only to have them not turn out they way they hoped.

No, the purpose of Revelation isn’t to get lost in the details, instead it was designed to turn the vision of the church toward God—the one who was, who is, and is to come—the God of the past, the present, and the future. John shared with the churches “the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance” of one who is waiting for Christ to come and so he offers them a glimpse that that reality is coming soon, a reality that requires imagination to see it and patience to wait for it. This is perhaps why Revelation comes at the end of the canon—it’s a glimpse of what the whole story of Scripture has been pointing to. It’s a story that begins with the creation of the world, that moves to the covenant God makes with his people in response to their sin; a story with it’s hinge point in the coming of Christ, God’s ultimate response to the covenant. It continues with the church, Christ’s body, and then comes to its fullness in a consummation—the new creation. What we learn in really studying Revelation is that it’s not about the end of the world, but about the beginning of a new one.

This is why Revelation is relevant today, not because it predicts the sequence of the future but because it speaks to God’s future breaking in on the present. It’s a form of good news, the revelation of Jesus as Lord, a form of the gospel that invites a response. Revelation asks us the same question it asked to those first churches who received it: Despite the darkness surrounding you, how will you live like people who have seen the Son?

The same responses are available to us that were available to the seven churches of Asia: We can quit and simply go along with the cult of culture. We can live the lie of keeping our public lives and our private faith separate. We can fight to regain the cultural power that Christendom once enjoyed, or we can take the opposite tack and adjust and accommodate our faith to the culture, settling for a form of civil religion that pays homage to the self-imposed divinity of wealth, prestige, individualism, and the power and security of the state. Or, we can die. Maybe we won’t be physically threatened, like those early Christians, but we can choose to die to self, to bear witness to the crucified Christ in our lives, to pick up a cross and walk behind him despite the cost. And dying is really the only option. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was himself martyred by the Nazis, put it,

BonhoefferQuote“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.”

But the one who bids us come and die is the one who also says, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (1:17-18). The one who holds the keys to death itself will unlock our future. Can there be any better news than that?

sun and clouds“Look! He is coming with the clouds,” says John; “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be.” He is coming back, says John, not to take us away but to take over. So hold on, John says to the churches. Hold on. The future is coming to you soon!

Is Revelation looking for the end of the world? No, it’s announcing the end of the world as we know it and the beginning of a new one. I hope you will join us each week as we explore that new world.

Sources: 

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. 

Boring, Eugene. Revelation. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. John Knox Press: 1989.

 

 

 

 

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