As part of our six-week sermon series on Revelation, The Holy C’s: Worship and Witness, Pastor Joel Littlepage has written a post about what the book of Revelation is and how it should be understood:
Let me name the potential elephant in the room here: The Book of Revelation! As I have prepared for this series and talked about it with people in the Church, there has been a common response: “Revelation?! That’s a bold choice for your first sermon series, pastor.”
If you weren’t raised in the church, and haven't hung around Christians very much, you might not know what I’m talking about. But Revelation is perhaps the most debated in the whole Bible. It’s the last book, the one that wraps up the whole story of God’s redemption; but many Christians have struggled to know what kind of wrapping it is even putting on the Story.
Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation, said this about the Book of Revelation:
“[It is] neither apostolic nor prophetic. . . . I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it. . . . Again, they are supposed to be blessed who keep what is written in this book; and yet no one knows what that is, to say nothing of keeping it. . . . Christ is neither taught nor known in it.” (Martin Luther, 1483–1546, writing in 1522).
And, maybe you’ve heard of John Calvin. That brother was thorough. He wrote lengthy commentaries on every book of the Bible, save one. Which one? Revelation! Thomas Paine, the early American pamphleteer called it “a book of riddles that requires a Revelation to explain it”
In our theological climate in recent history, Revelation has either been ignored entirely or it has been the hyper-focus of fringe Christian theology, obsessed with the end of the world. It’s what many spend much of their time and public speaking platform talking about: they spend millions on radio, television, and internet airtime to distribute their “decoding” of the “end times.” Like many other parts of the Scripture, people often read Revelation for its parts and not its sum, using the symbolism in the book to match it up just right with their own geopolitical theories, and specific dates on which the world will end. They, quite frankly, have wasted many people’s time (including mine!). More importantly, these mis-interpretations and theoretical extrapolations have robbed us of the important thrust of the book of Revelation, which is calling us to a life of hope and faithfulness in the midst of oppression or compromise, and to a life of worship and witness to God and to the Lamb in defiance of every other idol or empire.
But the question we must ask ourselves, is this: What does Revelation say that it is? What kind of book is it?
In the intro to the book, it says this:
1 The revelation (or apocalypse) of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. 4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood 6 and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
We can say five things about Revelation as a document, we’ll come back to these throughout the next few weeks, so I’ll be brief:
- Revelation is an Apocalypse: Apocalyptic literature was a genre, a specific type of book. It displays itself in previous books of the Bible like the books of Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel and the later chapters of Zechariah. More current to the time of Revelation, it was a popular genre among the Second Temple Jewish Literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, etc. It’s when a human author is visited by an angelic being to disclose a transcendent reality that will come to pass, using highly symbolic and other-worldly language. It’s highly symbolic, not to be taken literalistically. We are to read Revelation with imagination, not with a microscope. There are lots of numbers: 7’s, multiples of 7, 12, multiple’s of 12, 12,000, 144,000 (12,000 x 12,000), 4. Then, of course, 666. They represent different things and are not often meant to be taken as exact figures. For instance: 7 is an “ideal” number, it’s a favorite of John’s. 12 is a significant number for the people of God: 12 tribes of Israel, 12 apostles. When John says that he sees an actual Lamb is chapter 5: does that mean Jesus is an actual lamb? Or is he a man who is symbolized as a lamb? (cf. John 1:29)
- Revelation is Prophecy: Meaning the author has been chosen by God to speak God’s words to God’s people at a specific time, here around A.D. 90 in the Roman Province of Western Asia. Prophecy can involve telling the future, as does happen in Revelation, but it usually and primarily involves God speaking through a human to reveal his perspective and his word on a situation in time. Two-Thirds of the book of Revelation are straight quotations or allusions to the Old Testament. It builds off of the Prophets of the past and announces the grand climax of all prophecy in Jesus Christ.
- Revelation is a letter: like most of the New Testament; a letter to seven specific churches. If you go and read Rev. 2-3, you will find seven messages to those churches from Jesus that accompany this whole larger letter of the Revelation. They were seven Western Asian Churches living sometime around the later half of the first century A.D., perhaps 40-60 or so years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Geographically, these Christians lived on the land that is today called Turkey, known in that time as Western Asia or Asia Minor. These seven cities to whom John wrote the book of Revelation were Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. They spoke Greek and were citizens or subjects of the Roman Empire (possibly under the emperor Domitian), who had temples dedicated to the Emperor, naming him as a “lord” and a “god,” and an elaborate system of civil religion. The seven Churches were called to be faithful worshippers and witnesses of God and the Lamb, Jesus, no matter the costs. Some of them were oppressed for their faith in Jesus, but if you go read Rev. 2-3 and see the messages to the churches you will find that about half of them are warned because they have compromised their faith. They have compromised with Rome! It was written to them, not to us. However we interpret Revelation, it needs to make sense to the original hearers of the letter. And, like all of the rest of the Bible, we understand that though the Book was not written to us, it is still a word for us that has application, truth, and deeply significant meaning for our days.
- Revelation is “theopolitical”: it has to do with political realities in the world: rulers, the way they rule, cultural values, sexuality, economics, justice. Right from the beginning, you can see the political language: Jesus is described as “the ruler of kings on earth.” In the Book of Revelation, you get pressed with the ultimate question: who is your allegiance to? The Lamb who was Slain or the Beast who tramples?
- Revelation is liturgical: it is full of worship services and scenes (cf. Rev. 4). It’s what has drawn me towards this book as we think about Worship and Witness. “Worship is so important in the book of Revelation,” writes Mitchell Reddish, “because John rightly understood that worship is a political act. Through worship one declares one’s allegiance, one’s loyalty. . . . [Public worship] is a statement to the world that the church will bow to no other gods.” (Reddish, Revelation, 104.)
The Book of Revelation is like a tapestry (or a…mosaic). It weaves together elements, images, and themes of the past books of the scripture in a way that portrays one beautiful, grand story about a Holy Father God, a Sacrificial Lamb, an ever-present Holy Spirit. It speaks of creation, of new creation, of the beginning and the end; It ends with a river and tree of life and a garden and a God who walks among his people, just as the Story of God begin back in Genesis. I look forward to exploring it together over the next 5 Sundays.
Grace and peace.