We started the first Sunday of June with the first book of the Bible, Genesis and we heard the story of Joseph and how because of a strange turn of events and a famine the 12 tribes of Israel ended up in Egypt. In the book of Exodus, we followed Moses who was called to lead Israel OUT of Egypt after they were enslaved. We briefly discussed Leviticus and Numbers and discovered the heart of Deuteronomy where the first fruits are offered as a response to the saving acts of God through the exodus event. We studied the minor and major prophets through Hosea and Isaiah. We explored the synoptic Gospels through Mark’s account of the paralytic who was lowered through the roof to be healed. We took on the heart of John which has been misinterpreted where Christ said, “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” We heard the story of the Eunuch in Acts and looked for him in our community. We met Paul once again in 1 Corinthians and learned that our faith should not be separate from every aspect of our lives, including the food that we eat. And in everything, Paul asks us to think of how what we do affects others and to put the other first. Last week we explored 1 John and were challenged yet again to love others because of the love we receive from God. Today we finish our summer survey of the Bible with the last book of the Bible, Revelation, in Greek it is the Apocalypse. Both words mean “unveiling.” But while its title may mean “unveiling” in reality it has added more confusion for Christians than cleared anything up.
Revelation was written between 92 and 96 CE to the churches in the western part of Asia Minor which is now called Turkey. It was written by a Jewish Christian prophet named John probably from the same community from which the Gospel of John as well as 1, 2, and 3 John was written. Most people believe the community that supported these writings was Ephesus.
Biblical apocalypses are written with a narrative framework built around a vision or visions that are given to a human being by a divine being. Sometimes they are taken to a high place to see the revelation below. Sometimes they are taken to another realm or another world in order to see the vision. The secrets revealed in the vision involve a cosmic transformation that will result in a transition from this world to a world yet to come that is accompanied by divine judgment on all.
Remember the dry bones that Ezekiel saw come to life? That is apocalyptic. My personal test for apocalyptic writings is if I wonder if the person who wrote it was hallucinating. We know that some of the prophets of pagan gods drank potions or did something like a sweat lodge in order to have their prophetic visions. I imagine the authors of apocalyptic to have done something similar although I do not actually know that to be the case. The writing is so “out there” it is difficult to get your head around.
Apocalyptic writing does have its root in prophecy. Prophets sometimes had experiences wherein they were brought into a heavenly court in God’s presence and introduced to the mysterious plan of God. The prophet Daniel is the only other full-blown apocalyptic book in the Bible besides Revelation. Daniel describes four monstrous beasts as well as other visions. Apocalyptic visions are otherworldly with vivid symbols and mysterious numbers. Apocalypses are almost always addressed to people living in times of suffering and persecution—where the author believes that they are living in the final days. For the author hope is no longer present having given way to the idea of direct divine intervention that will bring the world to an end, where God will have the final word and God’s justice will reign.
At the time that Revelation was written, Nero had viciously persecuted Christians in Rome and the current ruler, Domitian ruled in a tyrannical fashion that also included some persecutions of Christians. Many saw the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 72 as the beginning of the end. When Revelation was written it had been about 20 years since the Temple was destroyed, the persecution of Christians had only increased. It would give great satisfaction to the oppressed to see these events as part of God’s plan for the end of times. For John of Revelation, God’s divine judgment on all who opposed Christ had begun.
Those of us who live in the southern part of the United States are used to seeing a church on every corner and even having streets named Church Street due to so many churches but we have nothing on Roman cities. Roman cities had pagan temples everywhere with the deification of the emperor being people’s primary god of worship. When I visited Ephesus our guide explained to us that the statues of beautiful strong bodies were made so that the heads could be changed. Each emperor that came to power expected everyone to worship him and wanted all the statues to represent him. At some point the sculptors got smart and instead of having to make all new statues every time the current emperor was assassinated or overturned, they carved the statues with a hole in the neck that allowed for the current head to be removed and a new one attached. These statues were everywhere and people presented offerings to them, prayed to them and worshipped them. People believed the leaders were divinely chosen and therefore deserving of worship.
This was an obvious problem for monotheists. Jews and Christians worshipped only one God and they were sometimes charged as atheists for their resistance to worship the current emperor. And the penalty for not worshipping could be harsh. Through time Jews were at times persecuted for this and at other times ignored. They were religiously non-threatening and pretty quiet and did not prosthelytize. Christians on the other hand were not so quiet. They have always been evangelical and the movement grew fast so that it was seen as a threat to the government.—
In apocalyptic writing, sometimes the symbols obviously stand for a particular evil figure or evil event in history and other times the symbols were more general. If every symbol represented only one thing, the writing would not be nearly so imaginative. Writings like Revelation compel imaginative participation on the part of the hearers and readers. We can read Revelation now and imagine what various symbols could represent in our own government and in our own leaders. But doing that is very different than thinking that John was writing about things in 2010. We must understand that John was not predicting events almost 2,000 years into the future. God has not revealed how creation took place nor how it will end. So, with that said, let’s look at this most compelling book.
The book is announced to be the revelation of Jesus Christ given by an angel to the author. John discloses that he was on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea about 65 miles southwest of Ephesus. Chapter one says that he was there “because of the word of God.” We do not know exactly what that means but it was common for Christians to be banished to an island and for Christians in trouble to go to an island to escape danger. Perhaps John was in exile or banishment on the island as he wrote Revelation. The natural environment sometimes finds itself in the writing as when the beast rises from the sea.
The revelation that was recorded by John was for The Seven Churches that were located in the western area of Asia Minor. Revelation was not written for Buena Vista, KY about Washington, DC. The seven churches very well may have represented the larger church or even all churches under Roman rule in the first and second centuries but it was not written to represent any church or town today.
The details written about the seven churches and seven cities demonstrate that John knew the area well. Revelation addresses each church separately starting on the east and moving north and then west and then south in what ends up looking like a not so perfect circle. Whether or not that is significant, I cannot tell you. I only know that Revelation is full of symbolism so I think it is safe to assume that everything has some deeper meaning. Seven is considered to be a perfect number, seven churches in seven cities that more or less make a circle is at least interesting. In every instance except two, each church is addressed first with something positive. For instance, for the church in Ephesus it says, “I know your deeds, labor and endurance.” This reminds me of Paul’s letters to churches. He always found something positive to say before he brought up all the things that needed work. There were three sorts of problems in the seven churches: false teachings, persecutions, and complacency. We do not endure persecutions in the United States but I imagine we could all hear more about false teachings and complacency. John, like Paul, closes on a positive note with a promise of good things in heaven for the victors of the faith.
After the seven churches are addressed comes the revelatory experience which begins in chapter four with “After this I looked and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” Once he got there he saw a beautiful sight with One seated on a throne surrounded by 24 elders dressed in white with golden crowns seated on thrones. On each side of the main throne are 4 creatures each with a different face: one is a lion, one is an ox, one is a human and one is an eagle. All of the creatures have 6 wings and all are “full of eyes in front and behind, all around and inside” and all of them sing day and night without ceasing.
In chapter 5, the One on the throne is holding a scroll with seven seals and an angel asks who is worthy to open the scroll. And it appears that no one in heaven or on earth or even under earth was worthy which made John is so sad that he began to weep. An elder told him not to weep because “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Now, I don’t understand a lot of the symbolism in Revelation but I know who they are talking about when they say, “The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David,” they are talking about Christ!
And then comes the good part! At this point we should all be expecting the Lion to step forward. For those of us who are The Chronicles of Narnia fans, we expect Aslan to step forward. BUT it is not a big tough wild lion that steps forward, it is a Lamb that looks as if it has been slaughtered. Not only does it appear to have been killed, but the lamb has seven horns and seven eyes which thankfully John tells us are the “seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.”
The lamb took the scroll from the One on the throne and the 4 living creatures and 24 elders fell and worshipped him singing a NEW song. Our passage for today is a continuation of the new song with more who have joined in the song; the angels and the living creatures and the elders numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands. Then every creature in heaven AND on earth AND under the earth AND in the sea all joined in one voice singing “to the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever.” They are the words to Handel’s Messiah, which we often hear at Christmas time but are most appropriate for Easter.
What an incredible scene. The only one worthy to open the scroll of God is the one that had been slain. No warrior or King, no Lion or Eagle, a weak, lamb that had been slaughtered was worthy. In the end my friends, God’s weakness is stronger than any power, human or otherwise.
The book of Revelation is fantastic. It is wild and other-worldly. It was written to be read in its entirety. It was written to churches under persecution in the first and second centuries. It makes fun of the Roman leaders and their tyrannical government and it imagines a harsh punishment will fall on them as result of God’s divine justice.
The book of Revelation was not a prediction of our time, of our world governments and leaders. It was not predicting how the world will end and how many will be saved. It has been misread and misused for centuries to no one’s benefit.
That said there is no denying the power and meaning that surrounds our passage today. It is not the mighty and powerful that will be deemed worthy. They will not be first in line. It will be the lowest of the lowly. It will be those who live and die like Christ who lived and died for others, who lived and died for us.
Revelation reminds us that one day, all creatures will sing together “Worthy is the lamb that was slain, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing.” It is an incredible image, an awesome revelation.
And the four living creatures said, “Amen”