[Here are Phil’s notes from the first Sunday of reflections on the Book of Revelation. Spoiler Alert: Most of the ways that Revelation is interpreted in contemporary culture, such as in the pop-theology of the Left Behind series of books, is hardly the way biblical scholars approach the meaning and significance of the book…]
“What the Book of Revelation Is… And What It Is Not”
1. It is symbolic commentary… It is not literal history
— Revelation is full of rich symbolism, allegory, and metaphor that is connected to events that transpire in history, but should not be confused for literal narrations or descriptions of events exactly as they transpire in history. Originally, the symbols and such helped early Christians make sense of the oppression and persecution they were enduring at the hands of the Roman Empire (an empire sustained by violence), and gave them language to express their hope and belief that the goodness of God would prevail, even though it didn’t always seem like that was the case.
2. It is about God acting in history… It is not about God ending history
3. It is about God renewing the world… It is not about God destroying the world
— At the end of Revelation, the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven and restores the world. (This echoes the prayer Jesus taught his followers: “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”) Revelation’s vision tells us that God ultimately destroys evil, but God does not destroy the world.
— Furthermore, contrary to pop-culture “Left Behind” rapture theology, God overcomes evil not through violence (remember, throughout Revelation, it is Rome that is symbolized by violence), but rather, God overcomes violence through the slain Lamb (imagery connected to Jesus, with images of the lamb symbolizing peace, not violence). It is Rome that seeks victory through violence; it is the way of the Lamb (Christ) that opposes such violence. (As the New Testament scholar Barbara Rossing has said, “‘For God so loved the world that he gave us his son,’ not World War III.”)
4. It is set within the context of early Christians in the late first and early second centuries… It is not set in some far off future
— As John writes, “the time is near.” The images and symbols that John invokes stand for figures and events that were prominent in his time and place — they are not reserved only for figures and events that will one day emerge in some far off future which he and his listeners would never be part of. Revelation’s promise that God’s goodness will overcome evil was written for oppressed and marginalized people living under the violence of the Roman Empire. (With that said, part of the beauty of Revelation is that it becomes a book in which oppressed and marginalized people from all ages can find hope and promise. As the philosopher Walter Benjamin once said, “Every moment contains a door through which the messiah can enter.”)
5. It is coded communication that makes sense for early Christians familiar with Jewish traditions… It is not a special code that only the lucky few can crack
— Revelation draws on prominent imagery in the biblical texts, especially of the apocalyptic variety (e.g., Daniel and Ezekiel). The symbolism is not intended to conceal meaning, but to reveal meaning, and those familiar with Jewish imagery and traditions are well-equipped at understanding what John is saying. Modern interpreters who take Revelation grossly out of context (with all of their end-time charts and such) rob it of its original symbolic meaning (as will become clear in subsequent weeks). To treat Revelation as some sort of magical code, decipherable only to those with special revelation, is to do it a great disservice.
6. It is connected to well-known apocalyptic and prophetic genres… But it is not a magical crystal ball that predicts the future
— Revelation is commentary on unjust powers and principalities, and it exposes them for what they are. Prophets speak for God in the sense of exposing the truth (i.e., “speaking truth to power”), not predicting the future. As is obvious, those who use the Bible, particularly the Book of Revelation, in order to predict when the world will end have always gotten it wrong (which is why books like “88 Reasons Jesus will return in 1988” always have to be revised and updated!).
7. It is a word of hope for people oppressed and persecuted by violent powers… It is not a word of comfort for those doing the oppressing and persecuting
— Revelation speaks a strong word of judgment against powers and principalities that violently oppress and exploit. Such powers and principalities are symbolized by the Beast and by Satan. God’s goodness judges them and, ultimately, overcomes them.
— Here, the old adage by Reinhold Niebuhr is apropos: “The gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”
8. It is best heard today with the ears of the oppressed… Not with the ears of those who represent the status quo
— The book of Revelation condemns representatives of the status quo (even including early Christians who turn a blind eye to the violence of Rome). Modern day people often don’t want to treat the book for what it is — a radical, unveiled critique of violence and power — because as a culture we are so enamored with violence and power. As such, those living relatively comfortable, affluent lives in the United States (for whom the status quo often works in their favor) frequently wish to soften and avoid the more radical edges of the Book of Revelation.
— For example, the radical Christian revolutionary Thomas Munzer (1489-1525) was quite a fan of Revelation, whereas Bishop Eusebius, a fourth century confidant of Emperor Constantine, expressed major doubts about including it in the Bible.
9. It is set within a particular time and place… Yet its meaning transcends time and place
— While it is set within the context of Roman oppression, its indictment of violence and its word of hope can carry meaning for all people in similar situations down through the ages.
10. It is a book that at first glance can seem difficult to interpret… But with a little background, it’s a book that reveals more meaning than it conceals (as we will talk about together in subsequent weeks).
*As mentioned in the previous post on Brentwood’s blog that announced this series of reflections on Revelation, Phil is deeply indebted to the scholarly work of Richard Lowery and Barbara Rossing. Those interested in learning more are encouraged to check out their respective books:
“Revelation: Hope for the World in Troubled Times” & “The Rapture Exposed”