Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. . . . I’m sure you recognize these lines, the first two sentences of the Lord’s Prayer. The text I want to draw our attention to comes from the book of Revelation (2:4-8). We could say that the whole book of Revelation fits into that second sentence of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The New Testament book of Revelation was written near the end of the first century, we believe, by John of Patmos. At the core of this book is a description, a series of vivid images, representing how we go from here to there: from here, a world ruled by force and self-interest, to there, God’s kingdom on earth as it has always been in heaven.
I once had a teacher, a Christian, who screened a freaky movie based on the book of Revelation to our middle-school class. The plot was spiced up with a character, a Roman soldier, I think, who had struck Jesus and was then doomed by God to roam the earth until Jesus’ return. There was also a woman about to give birth to a child who couldn’t have a soul because they had run out—or something like that. I can’t remember the movie’s full title: it was the “The Seventh something or other.”
Thankfully, such stories don’t represent what the book of Revelation is really about. Revelation is mostly about things like worship, allegiance and the glory of the risen Christ. In the coming weeks I plan on engaging the passages from Revelation that the lectionary assigns us. I think it’s one way of living for a little longer in the season of Easter. It’s one way at getting at the implications of Jesus’ appearance to his followers in Jerusalem. In John 20 we read that Jesus greeted them in peace but his body still bore scars. Here I want to sketch a few prominent features of the book of Revelation and present two central convictions that emerge from the book.
In the book of Genesis the great biblical drama begins in a garden. It’s a picture of paradise: God’s good earth, with human creatures as earth’s keepers and gardeners. The word that captures things best is ‘shalom’—blessed community. Those are our roots. Peace and goodness are the elemental characteristics of our world. That the claim of the Bible’s first book. You get a sense of what this feels like when you sit in a canoe and take in the rocky shoreline of a northern lake where the skyline is dramatized by the long arms of red pine. But of course our world isn’t just water, and trees and sky. There more going on than the web of life. Genesis draws out attention to that as well. It describes how inordinate desire misaligns things, how sin disrupts our relationships with each other, with God and with the rest of creation. You can get a sense of that, well, just about anywhere.
If the beginning of Genesis offers us a sense of where we come from, the end of the book of Revelation offers a picture of the climax of history. As we will see in the final two chapters, the book leads us to anticipate the return of peace to God’s creation. In Revelation, though, the picture of peace is not a lonely garden paradise but a city. God’s good creation has been joined with the best of human culture. I think you get a sense of this when you give careful attention to the astounding works of architecture that dot some of our great cities, or when you study the highpoints of musical composition and literary creativity. Biblical writers throughout the canon make use of marital, even sexual imagery, and here at the end of the Bible we will find the consummation of that imagery. There is the coming together, the dwelling of one with the other. The openness of divine and created to each other.
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
That’s where the book of Revelation heads, but let’s take a step back and think about the book as a whole. This book is one of the most misunderstood and misused portions of Scripture. Many of us would rather not touch it. It is too wild, too otherworldly, too violent, and too . . . well, weird. The Protestant Reformer John Calvin wrote commentaries on every New Testament book except this one. In our own more bourgeois moments we may wish the book wasn’t a part of the Bible at all. Sacred Scripture would then better fit our comfortable existence. I admit to having some of these same thoughts.
Nevertheless, as I surveyed the lectionary readings for this season after the celebration of Easter I have found myself drawn to the texts from Revelation. There are probably several reasons for this.
The first reason is simply the fact that the book doesn’t show up much in the lectionary. Maybe the book’s flamboyance gets in the way of the sedate spirituality of churches that use the lectionary. Yet, this is precisely where we should be most skeptical of ourselves. When we are most convinced that our modern ideas make ancient ones obsolete, we should be warry. Perhaps in this most unlikely of locations we will find a key that opens up some of the idolatrous spaces of our lives.
A second reason that I think Revelation might be more fruitful for us than we first think is related to its literary form. The book of Revelation is complicated. In popular theology the book is often presented as one rolling chronological prophecy of crazy things coming our way—depending on who is or isn’t elected president or what credit card companies decide to do next with chips or which dictator’s name can be numerically reduced to triple sixes. The book of Revelation is complicated, it’s true, but its complexity doesn’t come from having coded descriptions of the future. According to one scholar of the book Revelation, G.K. Beale, this book has more allusions to the Old Testament that the rest of the New Testament combined. It is full of self-references and historical references as well. Few of these are literal or straightforward to reads removed by some two millennia.
There is a bit of truth to the common notion that Revelation is a book of ‘prophecy’. The author uses that word to describe the book in verse 3 of the first chapter. However, a problem creeps up on us in contemporary English when we connect the word ‘prophecy’ with ‘prediction’ or even put it in the same realm as something like astrology. In the biblical tradition prophecy is as much about calling for repentance as it is about future events. The biblical prophets explained the moral roots of a current crises. John of Patmos does this with images and metaphors. And in addition, he uses what strikes us as wild imagery to describe systemic evil.
A better word to describe Revelation, if we have to pick just one, is ‘apocalypse’. In fact that’s the book’s other name—‘apocalypse’. The word ‘revelation’ comes from the Latin and the word ‘apocalypse’ from the Greek. They mean much the same thing. In fact, the first word in the Greek manuscript, apokalupses, is translated into English as ‘revelation’. There are other examples of apocalyptic literature in the Bible: parts of Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Joel and Isaiah.
Apocalyptic literature, including the book of Revelation, is about unveiling. Revelation uses wild imagery and vivid language to cut through our assumptions about power and our assumptions about what counts. In so doing, the book deals with worship and allegiance. One of the reasons we have a hard time with the book is that so much of the New Testament is made up of the fairly straightforward gospel narratives or the logical prose of the apostle Paul. Revelation is neither an account of someone’s life, as are the gospels, nor a linear argument, as are Paul’s letters. We have little reason to be well-practiced at reading apocalyptic.
The book of Revelation is a bit like (I say this hesitantly) a comic book. Revelation relies on images, images that aren’t to be taken as literal descriptions but as pictures that change our way of seeing the world. Think of a political cartoon, one where an animal or some fantastical creature is used to represent a nation or a movement. Parts of Revelation are like that. There’s one example in chapter 13. John writes, “And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth.”
This beast is absolutely bizarre unless you know that there is an account in Daniel 7 of a vision of four beasts, including a lion, bear and a leopard. Each of Daniel’s beasts represented a specific empire. There wouldn’t have been any mystery involved in this for his original readers. Now, back to Revelation 13. There John’s vision combines all of Daniel’s beasts to represent the craven character of imperial power. He’s trying to show his readers something about the systematic abuses that come with imperial ambitions.
To emphasize the point we might think of Romans 13, where Paul describes nations and governments as “God’s servants.” Paul wrote before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and before Nero began persecuting Christians and before he presented himself as a deity. John wrote after those things, in the midst of his audiences suffering through such things, and so he describes governing empires not God’s servants but as beast and enemies of peace. I imagine that with some historical sensibilities we could think of examples for both political expressions.
A third reason for taking Revelation seriously, especially if you don’t buy my first two reasons, is simply that the phrases or images of this text have a great deal of cultural currency. They show up in much more significant stuff than the silly movie I was shown in grade eight. From Handle’s Messiah to D.H. Lawrence, from contemporary film to pop music. The Apocalypse of John is part of our global lexicon.
* * *
Now to a couple of take-away ideas or core convictions from the first few chapters of Revelation. The first core conviction is related to Jesus and the second to the church.
In verse 8, which we heard earlier, God says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega . . . the one who is and who was and who is to come.” This self-description as Alpha and Omega, the first and last letter of the Greek alphabet, is meant to say that God contains the ends and everything between.
When it comes to deep questions of our lives, the really elemental stuff, what we need is precisely this one who is and was and who is to come.
This is the sense that comes with the big prairie skies and the vastness of an ocean. It comes to us as well through the depth of space stretching out before us in the constellations of the night.
Revelation is about the vastness—the infinity—of God. Therefore it is about worship.
There is more, scandalous more, enough more to make us a little twitchy. The more is that Jesus is the faithful witness to that vastness. He testifies to that incomprehensible divine mystery. What’s more, Jesus the faithful witness is the ruler of the kings of the earth.
Many of those in the churches to whom John addressed this letter were businesspeople. They would have handled money, and on those coins would have been the likeness of the emperor. In his book on Revelation the Mennonite biblical scholar J. Nelson Kraybill includes a photograph of a coin used during the reign of the emperor Domitian (38). Domitian is depicted seated on a globe surrounded by seven stars. In verse 16 of chapter 1 John depicts “the Son of Man,” that is Jesus, holding seven stars in his right hand. Domitian died within a few years, maybe even a few months, of John’s penning this circular letter. John’s audience knew what it was like to have multiple claims to their allegiance.
Our age, like the age of John of Patmos, is one where there are many calls for our allegiance. Nations ask us for it, professional associations do too, so do unions and sports teams and corporate brands. Even leisure activities ask for our allegiance. These entities do it when they ask for our lives, or, on a more mundane level, when they ask for our time, our money or our attention. All of these things claim to hold the stars. They claim to matter.
These entities claim to be more worthy of our attention than the vast One whom the seer of Patmos encountered. They claim to be significant enough to make our lives oh so very satisfying. They claim it, but John’s wild images urge us to second guess their claims. He tells us that the Alpha and Omega asks for our allegiance. He tells us that Jesus, the Son of this eternal One, is the true witness.
If John’s Revelation is an apocalypse, the shortest way to summarize it is simply to say—Jesus Christ. In Jesus we see reality without veil.
A final take-away: In the beginning of Revelation we see that the church matters. The community of worshipers and disciples that extends through history and around the world matters deeply in this text. Those who extend the reconciling ministry of Jesus matter deeply.
John addresses his letter to seven church in Asia Minor in the western portion of modern day Turkey—Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.
Revelation is Christian Scripture, so we read it as though it were written to us; however, it was originally written to actual communities. These were communities with internal tensions. We know that the church in Smyrna was challenged by differences between Jews and gentiles. Some of these communities were places where life was made difficult because of their Christian faith. In Pergamum a church member named Antipas was martyred. In other communities doing business seemed to require spiritual compromises. In Thyatira the Christian community accommodated to the dominant pagan religion. It’s possible that some of them felt compelled to do so in order to be accepted into professional guilds. Some of the churches John wrote to had their commitment dulled by wealth. The Christians in Laodicea had much; there worship was halfhearted and weak. And there were those, like the community of disciples in Philadelphia, who kept on in patient faithfulness. They endured. Endurance is perhaps the most important human virtue in John’s Apocalypse.
The seven churches to whom John addressed his letter were real churches with real problems, but literarily they signify the whole church across time and around the world. It is to these that John addresses his letter. Another Christian who is famous for mystical visions is Julian of Norwich. She lived in the 14th century. Like John her visions were mostly about Jesus. Their depictions of Jesus share something important. For both the risen Christ still bears the marks of scars of suffering.
Describing her vision, Julian writes, “Then, with a glad face, our Lord looked into his side, and gazed, rejoicing; and with his dear gaze he led his creature’s understanding through the same wound into his side. And then he revealed a beautiful and delightful place which was large enough for all mankind who shall be saved to rest there in peace and love.” For Julian Christ’s wounds are a picture of the space within God for us. The wounds of Christ are marks of divine solidarity with those who suffer.
Thomas, one of the fearful disciples in John 20, wanted to see the wounds of Jesus. He could hardly believe he was alive. When he has that opportunity he acknowledges Jesus: “My Lord and my God,” he says. We often think of that exchange as being about belief and doubt. There’s nothing wrong with that, but maybe prompted by Julian and by John we can see this wounded Christ as something that prompts worship. J. Nelson Kraybill writes, “The central strategy in Revelation for strengthening the church . . . is for believers to draw close to Christ in worship” (161).
I’m sure somewhere someone has drawn a comic book version of the Easter story. If so, I’m sure they’ve depicted God’s love and the beauty of a self-giving Christ. I image too that they have depicted the fellowship of those who follow this risen One. And perhaps they’ve even include startling depictions of the challenges these followers face. If that’s true, if someone has done that, they’re in good company. They join John of Patmos. His letter startles us with the glory of God, it shocks us with depictions of suffering. It draws our attention to Jesus Christ. It reminds us of the importance of those gathered in his name. John’s letter moves us to worship.