An Open Door: Introducing Revelation
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
22 April 2007
One of the newest trends in television is the incredibly diverse cast. Lost and Grey’s Anatomy are supreme examples. On Lost one of the characters is even a torturer from the Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein. We seem to have finally gotten beyond simply having a token black person.
So, I have a question for you. Which television show of the 1960’s really pioneered the diverse cast? It’s also the first show to put an inter-racial kiss on American broadcast television. The answer is Star Trek.
Star Trek was on during a time of great tension between races and between men and women. It was also at the height of the Cold War. Yet this show had among its primary cast an African-American, an Asian-American, and a Russian. Though plenty of Star Trek episodes are wild space adventures battling strange alien monsters, many of the episodes also deal profoundly with issues of the day, including race. One reason Star Trek was able to get away with some of what it did was because it was set in the future as a science fiction adventure.
On the face of it, Star Trek told one kind of story. Yet if you examined it more closely, you could discover that it was telling a different kind of story.
Right after I accepted my first youth minister job, I was talking with the youth about what they wanted to study in our Wednesday night youth program. One of the kids called out “Revelation.” Well, I wasn’t really interested in teaching Revelation. Though I knew there were various ways to read the text, I still had ingrained within me the reading I was taught growing up, a literal, dispensational premillenialism.
In that view, Revelation was about the end of the world, and it was going to be here really soon. In that worldview, a study of the Book of Revelation meant trying to figure out who was the anti-Christ and how the Soviet Union and the United States fit into the scheme of things. Plus there was a always a villainous role for the Pope, the European Economic Community, and, depending on your politics, Ronald Reagan or Mikhail Gorbachev. That worldview produced the 1970 bestseller The Late Great Planet Earth which claimed that the meaning of the Book of Revelation was to be discovered in the Cold War. The end of the world would come when the Soviet Union invaded the Middle East. In 1988 there was a sensation when one guy published a book entitled 88 Reasons Why Jesus Will Return in 1988.
Throughout the history of the church, so many people have misunderstood Revelation. Some have reveled in the book, though they’ve misinterpreted it and used it to abuse and exclude and commit violence. Others have hated the book and rejected it outright. Even someone as esteemed as Martin Luther thought the book ought to be removed from the canon.
Needless to say, I wasn’t interested in teaching about Revelation to my youth. However, that year the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship picked Revelation for the annual Bible study, so I bought some commentaries and borrowed others from friends in order to research the book. What I discovered was that this was an amazing book and some of its passages became favourites of mine.
Why were my youth interested in study Revelation? Because it permeates their world. The Left Behind novels are wildly popular. Plus many films and tv shows talk about the end of the world with religious shadings.
For that study, I wanted to emphasize that we were dealing with visual imagery that conveyed non-literal meaning. So, each week of our study we constructed a banner and at the end of our study used those banners in worship. One of the youth designed the banners. What I discovered, when I met with her ahead of time, is that she didn’t share any of my programming.
Because the youth had not been fed the misunderstanding of the literal, dispensational premillenialist view, they didn’t need to first be deconstructed. They generally got this book right off the bat. For example, when I sat down with Genny Golden to talk about the banner design, I went into a speech about how these were symbolic images. Genny interrupted me and said she got that, that that was obvious to her.
What dawned on me in that minute is that the youth had grown up in such a visual and image driven society, that they were used to interpreting such images.
There are basically two ways we humans approach truth. One way is to use rational argument. The other is to tell stories. We humans are mythmaking. The word myth doesn’t mean falsehood; it means a story we tell in order to make sense of our world.
One of our favourite American myths is the Western. The basic formula is that a lone man enters the wild west and tames the land, defeats the Indians, Mexicans, or white villains, and then gets the woman. It is a myth about the power of a individual to tame the otherwise wild and uncontrollable forces of the world. These Westerns were an attempt to bring order and meaning to a chaotic world.
Though Westerns might be out of fashion, we keep telling this story, only now the setting is more likely to be outer space. But, then, we’ve always told this story. Isn’t it basically the story of Beowulf? In fact, there is a pretty clear line connecting Luke Skywalker, Ripley, and Neo to Gilgamesh, Achilles, and Krishna.
The Book of Revelation is a story told by a group of people to make sense of their world. It is written in a very specific genre of ancient literature. Revelation is written in a style called “apocalyptic.” The word “apocalyptic” simply translates “revelation.” The other name for this biblical book is the Apocalypse of John. Nowadays you hear people use the word apocalypse and they are really misusing it. Apocalypse does not mean a catastrophic, cataclysmic, or phantasmagoric end of the world. It simply means “revelation.”
Apocalyptic literature was a specific genre of ancient literature. It used highly symbolic language, often set within the context of a cosmic battle, in order to make sense of contemporary issues. In the bible the other examples of apocalyptic literature are found primarily in Daniel and Ezekiel, books that Revelation heavily draws from. There were also numerous Jewish and Christian apocalypses that did not make it into the canon.
Let me give you an example from the Book of Ezekiel. The people had been taken into exile to Babylon. Some of them had forcibly been dragged to Babylon in chains. Many had been killed or were forever separated from family. It was a time of deep anguish and reexamination for the Jewish people. Many wondered about God. For so long they had understood the Temple in Jerusalem as the home of God on earth. Many wondered if God was still God in Babylon or if they should now abandon their faith and worship the Babylon gods.
In the midst of this crisis of faith, Ezekiel received a vision:
As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside them, one for each of them. As for the appearance of the wheels, their construction was something like a wheel within a wheel. When they moved, they moved in any of the four directions. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. Over the heads of the four living creatures there was something like a dome. And over the dome over their heads there was something like a throne and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form. I saw something that looked like fire, and there was splendor all around. Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendor all around. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.
Ezekiel’s vision makes sense when you understand its meaning. The people wondered whether God was with them in Babylon. What does Ezekiel say? Ezekiel tells them that the throne of God rides on wheels that can travel in all directions. The glory of the Lord has, in fact, come with them. Ezekiel simply used spectacular imagery to convey a theological truth. Just like with Star Trek, he used one type of story in order to tell a deeper story.
Though apocalyptic literature might be foreign to us, I think the principle is very familiar. We use various genre to tell stories that are really about deeper truths. For instance, I was a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I don’t think there has been a tv show that good since Buffy went off the air. Now, when people asked me about my enjoyment of Buffy, they often said, “But isn’t it a show about vampires?”
No, it was not a show about vampires. It was a show that used vampires to tell a story about a young woman growing up and coming to terms with the world – with friends and family, with love, with the issues and troubles and joys of life. I would challenge you to watch the episode entitled The Body. In that episode Buffy’s mother dies. I still think it is one of the single best written episodes of television that I’ve seen. I can speak with authority that that episode conveyed exactly what it is like when one loses a parent as a teenager. Its telling was far more real than that of the standard dramatic show.
Apocalyptic stories were usually told at times of great crisis. Usually huge global sorts of crisis, when it was difficult to rationally understand what was going on. In these moments a community might produce a story that saw their current struggle in terms of an on-going cosmic battle. They told a story in order to make sense of what was going on in the world. Ezekiel dealt with the horrific time of exile. Daniel was written as the people confronted the oppressive regime of the Seleucid emperor Antiochus Epiphanes IV, during a time when the major empires of the world raged in huge battles that caught poor little Palestine in a web of violence.
Post-9/11 we’ve had a difficult time making sense of the chaotic world in which we’ve found ourselves. Look at our television and see what stories we’ve told. Shows like 24 and Alias dealt with the world of terrorism and intelligence. Heroes holds out hope that a few gifted people will be able to save the world. Lost has been so popular because most of us do feel lost in a world that we don’t recognize. We want to know how we got here and how we can get home again. Movies like 28 Days Later, War of the Worlds, and Children of Men use fantastical and sci-fi elements in order to grapple with our contemporary fears and hopes. This week the Pulitzer Prize for fiction went to Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, an apocalyptic story set in the future after global destruction, which grapples with many of these issues of hope and despair. I use these contemporary examples so that we’ll realize that Revelation shouldn’t be all that foreign to us. The media, the formulas, the symbols may have changed, but we still have the same motivation to tell the same types of stories.
What was the context for the Book of Revelation? It was written probably at the end of the first century. It is credited to John. Though legend held this to be the apostle John, the text itself actually does not make this claim. Legend had it that John was the only one of the twelve to die of old age. However, he suffered torture (including being boiled in oil), exile, and imprisonment. In the midst of this suffering and oppression, he receives a vision.
The Christian community had experienced oppression from the Roman Empire. It is not clear that this was a concerted organized oppression or whether it just appeared in different times and places. We do have horrific stories about the violence that was perpetrated against some Christians. Part of the point seems to be that only some Christians experienced this violence. Some accommodated themselves to the Empire and were not punished. Others refused to accommodate and were punished.
This was during the high point of the Empire’s power. The Empire had brought stability and order to the Mediterranean world. They called it peace, but it was an enforced peace. The stability meant that trade was easier. This brought great economic prosperity to many people. However, economic injustices like burdensome debt resulting in slavery still existed. It was an enlightened, sophisticated, cosmopolitan time.
However, it required obedience and submission to one central power – the Empire, represented by the Emperor in Rome. Rome allowed much greater individual freedom than did many of the large empires that had preceded it. However, certain things could not be tolerated. Most importantly, there was no alternative sovereignty. Caesar was lord. Caesar was sovereign over politics, the military, the economy, and the religion. Occasionally this went to some emperor’s head, like when Caligula wanted everyone to worship him and installed statutes of himself in places of worship throughout the empire.
The other important element of context to remember is that during this period the Jewish state in Palestine was destroyed. The Palestinian Jews had always lived uncomfortably under the Empire. Some accepted Roman rule, but many objected to it. There had been minor incidents, almost always suppressed quickly and mightily by the Roman imperial forces. Jesus was not the only messiah to be crucified by Rome.
In the sixties of the first century, the Jews had revolted. The insurrection was put down by the imperial forces, only to flair up again in the 130’s. At that point the Jews were scattered, their homeland destroyed. Jerusalem was razed and a new city was built upon its ruins. Temple worship was no more.
Sometime during this period of crisis in the Judaeo-Christian world when there were global, imperial forces beyond the people’s control, the Book of Revelation was written.
It was written by an oppressed minority who found hope in the claim that Jesus is Lord and that the oppressive forces of the Empire cannot stand before the glory of Jesus.
The vision begins with an appearance of Christ in radiant glory. Jesus has a message for the churches. There are, then, letters to seven churches in Asia Minor, current-day Turkey. These letters bless faithfulness and reproach lack of faith.
These letters are to specific churches, but they are also, clearly to the church itself, to all churches, because the themes are universal themes. Though the Book of Revelation was written for a specific time and place, its themes continue to be relevant for churches in all times and places.
The basic point addressed in the letters to the seven churches is faithfulness to the sovereignty of Jesus. Some followers have accommodated themselves to the Empire. The letters are particularly negative on those who have become economically comfortable, because the imperial economy was based upon oppression and violence. The letters call for people to be faithful to the way of Jesus, even if that faithfulness results in persecution and suffering.
Notice when the text says, “To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.” One could read this at first and think that the message is that we are supposed to be warriors, fighting the forces of evil with weapons. But look again. It says we are conquer just as Jesus did. How did Jesus conquer? He lived a radical life that got him executed and God raised him from the dead. The way Jesus defeated the powers and principalities, the powers-that-be of this world, is that he confronted them, died, and was raised again. We conquer the same way, by imitating and participating in the life of Jesus. It is this text that brings us the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”
In the midst of a time of religious persecution and imperial oppression, those listening to these words read must have wondered, “How can I be faithful in this difficult time?” or “How can I trust that my suffering will not be in vain?” These were real questions that plagued the early church. And I trust that these are questions that we have. How can we be faithful during this time of war? How can we follow Jesus’ inclusive example despite the prejudice of those around us? On this Earth Day, how can we be better stewards of the environment, when so much seems beyond our control? This week, how can we cope with the random violence on the Virginia Tech killings? How can we know that our live will not be lived in vain?
Jesus hears these questions. Jesus knows our anxieties and fears. And Jesus has an answer:
Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.
After this I, John, looked, and there in heave 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.”
And the rest of the book will answer these questions for us, calm our fears, and invite us to celebrate with joy and peace. I invite you to walk this journey with us the next five weeks as we continue our study of the book that opens the door to reveal God’s will for human history.