We have mentioned a couple times in the last couple weeks that, in the church, Easter is not a single day, but a season – a season of a few weeks in which we continue to consider the good news, and the implications, of Jesus’ resurrection. We often continue to look, as we did the last two Sundays, at Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances: Jesus’ coming to disciples, in between Easter morning and his ascension into heaven six weeks later.
Yet today’s Easter-season sermon, you notice, turns our attention not to the last pages of the gospels, where those post-resurrection appearances are described, but rather to the last pages of the whole Bible instead – that last book all the way at the back, which describes some visions which were seen, probably some fifty years after Jesus’ resurrection. What’s that got to do . . . with Easter?
To find out, we consider that book today: What do we do . . . with the book of Revelation?
The “Lectionary,” as we’ve noted before, is a set of Scripture lessons, listed Sunday by Sunday, recommended as the subject matter for our worship services and Sunday School lessons. Many churches, of several denominations, try to follow this recommended list, because it provides several advantages. One of these advantages is that, over a three-year-period, the Lectionary steers us to all the major stories of the Bible. If we follow the schedule, we get to know the whole Bible, not just certain parts. We don’t overlook certain parts.
Now believe me, it is tempting sometimes to stay away from certain Biblical passages that are difficult to preach and teach from; just ask any of our Sunday School teachers. And one of the parts of the Bible that is famous for ministers and teachers trying to stay away from it, is this book of Revelation. It’s mysterious, and it has lots of strange symbols in it, and parts of it make us uncomfortable. I’ve heard several ministers and teachers, only partly in jest, swear that they’re never going to touch the Book of Revelation in their sermons and lessons.
But guess what our Lectionary leads us to for the weeks after Easter. “It’s time,” the Lectionary says. “We’ve put it off for three years, pretending it’s not lying in wait for us there at the end of the Bible, like some preacher-eating alligator. But now it’s time to be brave, soldier. Get ready, get set, go: it’s Revelation time at church.”
Now I mentioned the strange symbols and stories. There are, for example, in this book: bright red and pale green horses; six-winged animals; stars falling from the skies; the sea turning to blood; locusts with human faces and scorpion tails; dragons; and a seven-headed ten-horned beast. The special effects would have to be more advanced, even, than in the new Avengers movie. And we don’t know what all these things mean; there are confusing sections for which we do not have clear explanations. And I’m afraid the book has also been misinterpreted from time to time, explained in ways that are just not correct. So the best approach for us today, I think, is to try an introduction to the book and how to use it, rather than a hit-or-miss stab at certain of the symbols. And along the way I think you’ll see what it has to do with this Easter season.
There is some difference of opinion about exactly when the Book of Revelation was written, but the majority of scholars believe it was composed during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian, from 81 to 96 A.D. A Sunday School lesson from the Presbyterian series “Bible Discovery,” describes the situation: “The emperor Domitian had exiled the author, named ‘John’, to an island called Patmos, a sort of prison, for the ‘crime’ of being a Christian. History outside the Bible helps document the cruelty of Domitian the emperor. He had friends, and even family members, murdered. He amused himself by killing insects. He proclaimed himself ‘Lord’ and ‘God,’ and set out to destroy all who refused to worship him with those two titles.
“The most stubborn resisters of the worship of the emperor were two groups: the Jews and the Christians. So his Christian readers, John warns, face the same persecution and imprisonment that he is suffering. It was in the midst of that persecution, of being punished for being a loyal Christian, that Revelation was written.”
This book, then, written from one Christian to others, is first and foremost a letter. Everything in the New Testament from Romans to the end, as a matter of fact, are letters. A scholar named Dr. Beasley-Murray describes how Bible letters work:
“The letter as a form of instruction became established in Greek literature before Christian times. So it is not surprising that Christian leaders adopted this mode of instruction from the earliest times of the Church. The New Testament letters were intended to be read during services of worship. The same is true of the Book of Revelation, as is evident from its introduction and conclusion, the letters to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3, and the nature of the work as a whole. Being a letter, the book was addressed to a group of Christian people in a known area of the world at a particular time in history. Nothing could be further from John’s mind than the notion that this was not for his generation, but for a remote one in the distant future. The situation and the needs of the churches in first-century Asia were as truly in John’s mind as he wrote as, for example, the situation of the churches in Galatia was in Paul’s mind as he wrote that letter. John was writing to the situation developing in Asia Minor, the clouds of persecution darkening the churches’ sky in the writer’s time.”
So Revelation is a first-century letter about things happening in the first century, just like Romans and Galatians and the other New Testament letters.
Now the style of this letter is something called “apocalyptic.” The word “apocalyptic,” Dr. Robert Mounce tells us, “applies broadly to a group of writings which flourished in the Biblical world between 200 B.C. and 100 A.D. An apocalypse normally purports to be a disclosure from God, usually through an angel to some prominent figure from the past, in which God promises to intervene in human history to bring times of trouble to an end and destroy all wickedness.” There were a lot of writings, around this time, in other words, in many religions, which sounded somewhat like this letter of Revelation – which featured visions, and symbolism, and news about the close of the age and a battle between good and evil.
The most striking thing, probably, about Revelation is one of those characteristics of apocalyptic writing: its use of symbols. We find those monsters, and lions with wings, and dragons and giant locusts and seas of blood and falling stars and lots of other memorable images. All of these things are symbols; they stand for something else. The problem is . . . we don’t know what they all stand for. Because they were symbols, of course, designed to communicate something to people over nineteen hundred years ago. “They spoke with great power to John’s fellow Christians,” Dr. Beasley-Murray writes, “but to modern readers appear as grotesque imagery, seen ‘in a glass darkly’, scarcely discernable through the haze.” Some of the symbols come from our Old Testament, but others come from ancient mythology which we don’t know about – old Babylonian or Phoenician stories which they knew, but we don’t.
Even readers of the book one hundred years after it was written were already admitting ignorance about what it all means, let alone nineteen hundred years later. “The closest modern parallel,” adds Beasley-Murray, “is the political cartoon, which is popular all over the world.” We know that the eagle stands for the United States, the bear for the old Soviet Union, the donkey for the Democratic party, and so on, but imagine someone nineteen hundred years from now halfway around the world trying to make sense of it. That’s the situation we’re in when it comes to some of Revelation’s symbols. They knew, but we don’t.
So how do we read this book? What do we do with it? What some people have done with it, for reasons which, frankly, are a mystery to me, is to decide that it tells the story of our generation, of the 21st century United States of America. They are certain, they say, that the Book of Revelation is not a letter directed first to first-century Christians, but to us, and about us. They aren’t the first to make such a decision:
As the year 1000 approached, readers claimed that Revelation was describing their period of history. During the Reformation, in the 16th century, readers decided that it was describing their period of history. Pietists studied Revelation and concluded that June 18, 1836 was the time of the end of the world. A German scholar decided that, in fact, it would be 1848. In the 1870’s, readers said Revelation was about the 1870’s; during World War I, that it was about the days of World War I; during World War II, that it was about Hitler and Stalin and Mussolini. In the 1960’s and 70’s, Hal Lindsay declared it was about the 1960’s and 70’s; he used Revelation to demonstrate, among other things, that before 1980, all the countries of Europe would have joined into one big country – no England, no France, no Italy. That probably comes as news to the citizens of those countries today. In 1980, Pat Robertson used Revelation to predict the imminent attack of Israel by the Soviet Union, a country which now no longer exists. Century after century, decade after decade, people have tried to claim that Revelation is about them, about their time. And all, of course, have been wrong.
Because Revelation is only about only two times: it is about the first century, when the letter was written and Christians were being persecuted; and it is about some final day when Christ comes again. And when it comes to identifying when that final day is, Scripture is clear: Mark 13: “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor even the Son, but only God.” And Acts 1: “It is not for you to know the times and periods that God has set.” It is not for you to know. We’re not supposed to. Revelation is about the first century, and about an unknown future date.
So we don’t know all the details about the “when.” And, given all the rather bizarre symbols, we don’t know all the specific details about “what” is going to happen, either, whenever that is. But leaving aside the giant locusts and dragons and scarlet horses, we do know the main point of the letter of Revelation. We do know everything we need to know.
We have already heard part of it today: “Look! He is coming with the clouds. Every eye will see him.” Jesus Christ is going to return. It’s a point the book makes over and over again. Chapter 3 verse 11: “I am coming soon.” Chapter 22 verse 12: “See I am coming soon.” Chapter 22 verse 20: “Surely I am coming soon.” It’s the same promise Jesus made throughout the gospels. In Mark 14: “You will see the Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven.” In Luke 21: “they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” In Matthew 24: “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” And in Acts 1: “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go.”
A main theme of the letter Revelation is that of our chapter 1, verse 7 today: Jesus is coming again. We are talking about post-resurrection appearances here; we are talking about after-Easter type stories – Jesus appearing to the faithful. He will come again. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, in our chapter 1, verse 8. All that means is the beginning and the end: Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. I am the A and the Z, present at the beginning and present at the end. “who is and who was. . . and who is to come.”
And the other main theme of Revelation is also an Easter theme, because it is a theme of hope and victory: when he comes, good will triumph and evil will be defeated, just as it was on Easter morning, when Jesus and life and faith and hope won, over death and sin and hopelessness and fear. Here is just a sample:
“Then I saw a new haven and a new earth. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying ‘See the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them at their God; they will be God’s people. God will be with them, wiping every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for these things have passed away.’”
Dr. Beasley-Murray, one more time: “To people of little hope or none, and to those whose confidence is uncertain, the Book of Revelation offers strong consolation. It is grounded in the Almighty God who made this universe, and whose will cannot be finally frustrated by any power in heaven or earth or hell. It is grounded in the God who has wrought redemption in and through Christ, the power of which is experienced in the world now, and the end of which is the subjection of all things to God. And since it is God acting in Christ for the deliverance of humanity and the establishment of God’s purpose, the end must be good.”
“The book’s most important contribution of all,” adds T.F. Glasson, “is its spiritual message, its glowing faith in the unfailing purpose of God and the final victory of righteousness. In the world of today, we can still see the marks of the beast, the lust for domination, the claws of cruelty, the pride of possession. But we know that the future belongs to Christ.”
Revelation . . . is about a final happy Easter to come.
So what do we do with the Book of Revelation? First, what we don’t do: we don’t pick up a dictionary if we want to read a good story; we don’t pick up a book of fairy tales if we want to read science; we don’t pick up a phone book to read American history. And we don’t pick up Revelation to read about the events of 2019; it’s just not about that.
We do read Revelation as a first-century letter, of faith and hope: that God is in control, that good will once again triumph over evil as it did on Easter morning, and that Jesus will make one more post-resurrection appearance, when he comes again. Revelation is a letter, of faith and hope.
Let’s pray: God, thank you for this letter of assurance to Christians, that you are in charge and that good will triumph. Help us to draw faith and hope from that assurance, especially on days we are tempted to be discouraged or without hope. Amen.