I’ve been into this title by Michael J. Gorman – a really excellent, lucid treatment of the book of Revelation. I’ll be spending four Sundays attempting to make Revelation relevant.
The challenge when working through this book, one that Luther thought should not have been included in the Canon, is that it has such a wildly mixed history of interpretation. Is it analogical (with correlation as the goal), or is it preterist? Was its primary intention a call to the church of the time to be faithful in persecution, or was it intended for a future application? Or both?
Deconstruction has to be the first task, with any book that has been so recently colonized for prophetic, quasi-political agendas. Dispensational theology really only took off late in the 19th century, yet it has been that field that has dominated the popular interpretation schemes, along with names like Tim LaHaye and David Jeremiah.
Did you know that the term “antiChrist” doesn’t even occur in the book? That was the first surprise. Michael writes,
“Revelation is not about the antichrist, but about the living Christ. it is not about a rapture out of this world but about faithful discipleship in this world. That is, like every other New Testament book, Revelation is about Jesus Christ — “A revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1;1) — and about following him in obedience and love. “If anyone asks, ‘Why read the Apocalypse?’, the unhesitating answer must be, “To know Christ better.” In this last book of the Christian Bible, Jesus is portrayed especially as
* the Faithful Witness, who remained true to God despite tribulation;
* the Present One, who walks among the communities of his followers, speaking words of comfort and challenge through the Spirit;
* the Lamb that was slain and now reigns with God the Creator, sharing in the devotion and worship due God alone; and
* the Coming One, who will bring God’s purpose to fulfillment and reign with God among the people of God in the new heaven and earth. (xv)
“Most scholars agree that Revelation is simultaneously an apocalypse, a prophecy, and a letter, “an apocalyptic prophecy in the form of a circular letter.” As Eugene Peterson observes in commenting on Revelation as a political work, “The gospel of Jesus Christ is more political than anyone imagines, but in a way that no one guesses.” (13)
“More than thirty years ago, biblical scholar John Collins famously defined an apocalypse as
‘a genre of literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.’ (14)
“Some biblical scholars have called apocalyptic literature ‘prophecy in a new idiom.’ Usually articulated in symbolic, even cryptic, language, this means that apocalyptic is also the language and literature of resistance. Richard Horsley contends that “[far] from looking for the end of the world, they [Jewish apocalyptic writers] were looking for the end of empire. And far from living under the shadow of an anticipated cosmic dissolution, they looked for the renewal of the earth on which a humane societal life could be renewed.” (15)
“Apocalyptic literature gives expression to apocalyptic theology. At the core of this kind of theology is a cosmic dualism, the belief that there are two opposing forces at work in the universe, one for evil (usually Satan and his demons) and one for good (usually God and the angels). This cosmic dualism gets embodied in real-life struggles between good and evil on earth, resulting in a more historical dualism of conflict between the children of God or light and the children of Satan or darkness. The reality of this cosmic and historical struggle means that every human must choose sides; one is either on the side of good and God or of evil and Satan. We might label this ethical dualism.
“Apocalyptic theology includes another kind of dualism, a temporal dualism. It divides history into two ages: this age and the age to come. The present age is characterized by evil, injustice, oppression, and persecution, while the coming age will be a time of goodness, justice and peace. Since these two ages are so antithetical, and since the current age is so completely invested with the power of Satan and evil, apocalyptic theology is marked by pessimism; there is no hope for a human solution to the crisis of this age. One God can — and will! — intervene to set things right.” (16)
While Rome is not mentioned at all in the book, but rather the Empire is identified as Babylon, it is precisely that symbolic argument that makes the book current. In the first century it was pagan religion that was allied with empirical power. In our day it is Christian religion that becomes entangled with the state. This only makes the task of discernment more critical. Any time we ally with power, we risk becoming a vehicle for the fallen powers. Revelation launches with seven letters to churches who must discern the particular risks they face, as well as the shape of gospel faithfulness.