The book of Revelation, sometimes also called ‘Apocalypse’, ‘The Revelation of John’, or even (incorrectly) ‘Revelations’ (like ‘Trivial Pursuits’, ‘Cliff Richards’, or ‘Tescos’; all pluralised words that definitely shouldn’t be 😉 ) is probably the most confusing book in the entire Bible, and it is certainly the most confusing in the New Testament.
Its weird imagery often reads more like a nightmare than anything else. And, in fact, so uncertain were the early Church as to its origins or relevance, that it was almost left out of the Canon of Scripture that we know today. The early Church fathers, in considering whether to include the book of Revelation into the Canon, took the decision to include it only under the following strict conditions: 1) It was not to be used for any major doctrine or in any liturgy of the church; 2) It did not have the canonical authority of the other New Testament writings; and 3) It was never to be taken literally in any way, but only metaphorically, as an encouragement for Christians about to undergo major persecution and bloodshed. Naturally, these conditions have been conveniently forgotten, or more likely never even heard of, by those in the church today who love to misuse this book to the detriment of others.
Of course, because of what I am increasingly thinking of as ‘Chalke’s Law’, which states:
“There are some people who will always find the angry verses in the Bible to confirm their obsession with anger and exclusion” (Steve Chalke)
…the book, with its weird and (on the surface) violent imagery is just perfect for those certain Christians who rejoice in – and indeed savour with eager and gleeful anticipation – the idea of the horrific mutilation, deaths, slaughter, and then endless torment of those who don’t agree with them, to the tune of rivers of the blood of the ‘unrighteous’ to the depth of a horse’s stirrups. Yes, that imagery is there in Revelation, but of course it doesn’t mean what it says on the surface.
This is because we need to remember that Revelation was written in the ‘apocalyptic’ style (which is why in some quarters it’s referred to as the ‘Apocalypse’), and as such it is written in a sort of code, some of which has been lost to antiquity, but some of which can be inferred by its historical context, and from whom the book was written to. In fact I think this is why, in some apocalyptic writings, the author is instructed to ‘seal up what is written’ *, because it concerns things that need to be worked out properly. A good example of this would be in Daniel 12:4; the second half of the book of Daniel is written in the apocalyptic style, as are parts of Ezekiel. For more on this subject, I would far rather defer to more learned scholars than myself, who know far more about it than I do. For example, N. T. Wright’s ‘Revelation for Everyone’ would be a good starter; it is a very informative book and is written in a style that is very easy to understand.
The worst thing that can be done with apocalyptic literature like Revelation is to read it literally, because it was never intended to be read as such, and indeed the misuse of this book by ignorant people (ignorant in both or either senses of a) not knowing, and b) being unimaginably unintelligent) has caused untold harm to millions of people all down through history. Indeed, I would say that no book has been misinterpreted and misapplied to others’ detriment as has Revelation. And all because people haven’t a clue what they are doing with this most lethal, and yet most blessing, of all the books in the Bible. The very last thing we should do with most of this book is to take it literally.
And yet, so much of modern theology, in terms of both ecclesiastical theology and common theology, is based on passages in Revelation. Without discussing these ideas specifically here, the concept of Heaven as an afterlife idea and the concept of ‘hell’ being a lake of burning sulfur, are both concepts which are strongly based on passages from Revelation. Even the ‘Pearly Gates’, where St. Peter is reportedly employed as a receptionist; even they are entirely from Revelation. Reference for the Pearly Gates? Revelation 21:21 is where that comes from. Go and take a look 😉
So, read in the light of the idea of an angry, retributive ‘nasty god’ like that found in much of the Old Testament, Revelation will of course be seen as incredibly bad news for most people, most of whom are going to be sorry they were born, according to the gleeful claims of those ‘certain Christians’ I mentioned above.
However, read in the light of Jesus, the Prince of Peace and the King of Love, the book can in fact instead be seen as excellent news for everyone. Again, I have here neither the time, the knowledge, nor indeed the inclination to expound on why this is the case; instead I would again refer you to people who really know what they are talking about. However, I would like to share with you today a brilliant piece by my friend Mo Thomas, where he presents an opposite view to the Evangelically-accepted ‘violent’ view of Revelation. No-one should read Revelation without having to hand several huge pinches of salt, and the definite guidance of the Holy Spirit to glean what it means for us today, and, more relevantly, what it means for you personally today. Formation of major doctrine from Scriptures in Revelation is a serious error, as we have already seen. Personally, I happen to think that formation of any major doctrine is also an error, but that’s just me 😉 I’d far rather live a life in the Spirit, completely unbound by others’ doctrines, rules and strictures. I’ll listen to others’ ideas, of course, but let’s just say there’s a lot of bones I spit out while I eat the meat 😉
Anyway, less of the masticatory** digressions; I will hand you over to Mo:
The term for “Revelation” is the Greek “Apocalypse”, or the “unveiling”. John’s revelation then in the scripture is primarily about the “unveiling” of the Person and Work of Jesus, not primarily the symbols, timelines, and events. But once seen through this lens…the symbols, timelines and events start coming into focus.
The subversive nature of the apocalypse can trip up many who are looking for a violent overthrow when Christ returns, much like the Messianic expectation of those in the 1st century. This type of overthrow requires a calamity-filled blood-soaked eschatology, which unwittingly fosters a perspective of escapism – with no authentic desire to engage and participate in God’s Kingdom here, now.
Here’s the thing. The book of Revelation may just be the most non-violent war scroll ever recorded in the history of apocalyptic literature. But we can’t ever see this unless we read as it would have been interpreted by those 1st century folks. It would have filled them with hope in the midst of evil Empire, Roman oppression. Victory is achieved – not by the methods of war and violence, but by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony.
What better way to motivate hope for our role in the Story than to paint an optimistic view of the Shalom and Care of God for all that He reconciled to Himself, for His Cosmos.
The subversive way of the Slain Lamb continues to make its way forward.
“Jesus is not coming back to renounce the Sermon on the Mount and kill 200 million people.
If that’s your reading of Revelation, what can I say? Lord, have mercy.”
– Brian Zahnd
The brilliant, subversive narrative we find at the end of our Bibles hinges on the throne room scene in Revelation chapter 5, where John hears an announcement for the Lion of the tribe of Judah. He turns, expecting to see a ferocious beast that tears His enemies apart, limb from limb, as Israel had long hoped and expected.
Instead, John turns and sees a tiny Lamb, looking as if it had just been slain. Ahhhh… the crucified Christ! From that point on, we no longer see ANY mention of a lion. But 29 more times, we see the Lamb of God, the prevailing theme of the Story.
This is masterful apocalyptic literature.
Yes, this King is victorious, and He reigns in power. Yet, this power is most clearly and succinctly displayed on the Cross, where we see that He would rather die for His enemies than kill them.
The book of Revelation is the Apocalypse, the “unveiling”, of Jesus the Christ, who displays His Power as the Crucified and Risen and Victorious Lamb. Don’t distort the brilliant subversion by making it a literal book about “end times” and Anti-Christ figures and the necessity of bloody violence.
Make it about our Beautiful King, the Crucified One who overcomes.
Rev 5:13. And I heard every created thing in heaven and on earth and under the earth [in Hades, the place of departed spirits] and on the sea and all that is in it, crying out together, To Him Who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb be ascribed the blessing and the honor and the majesty (glory, splendor) and the power (might and dominion) forever and ever (through the eternities of the eternities)!
Come, let us worship.
– Mo Thomas
Regarding the return of the ‘Warrior Jesus’, and regarding a couple of other Revelation points, I once put it like this:
“If Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, it follows that He will be the same Jesus when He returns. The angels at the Ascension said that ‘this same Jesus…’ will return; they never said He’d return as someone different. In addition, the passage (in Revelation 5:6) about the Lamb on the throne describes Him as a Lamb, not as a Lion. He will return as a Lamb, because He left as a Lamb. That whole scene is about the literary bait-and-switch of the throne of a mighty King, the King of the Universe, in fact, being the Lamb looking as if it had been slain in the centre of the throne. The power and right to rule comes from the power of God, which is the power of the Cross – as in, the submission of the Lamb to the point of death, thus showing where true power actually lies, in the self-giving nature of God and NOT the desire to lord it over others.
“Furthermore, Revelation is very much a book of metaphysical imagery and weird Apocalyptic, coded writing. To interpret it literally would be a mistake, for most of the book at any rate. I personally think that Revelation is something where John was seeing things that were very hard to describe from a human point of view, and so they need to be taken with a very large pinch of salt. Or a dose of magic mushrooms”.
As one final comment, and as a general tip for reading Revelation, I would say that if you come across a passage in that book that the Spirit does not make come alive for you, then by all means feel free to set that passage aside until such time as She does make it come alive for you. Some of it you may never understand, and this is not surprising as the book was in fact not written to you anyway (Rev 1:4). But that’s all right. We don’t have to ‘get’ it all; not by a long chalk.
*Yes, that’s why there’s a sealed scroll for the header image. Much of Revelation is still sealed for many people, including myself, and the ‘Secret of the Lord‘ notwithstanding 😉
**Related to chewing. Just so you know.