Since I'm late with one week's blog post, I may as well be both on time with this week's and early with next week's and just put them all together. First and foremost, however, do not turn our reading of the Book of Revelation into a commentary on our time of pandemic crisis! Do look for how it might support a faith that gets us through this difficult period in our lives and our world. OK, here we go - see you (virtually) on May 6!
With generations of scholars looking over my shoulder, I offer with some trepidation these few thoughts on this strange and wonderful book. Do not be intimidated by its reputation or its strangeness! Jump right in. We've encountered this type of literature before, particularly in Ezekiel and Daniel in the Old Testament, and in portions of the Gospels. It's known as "apocalyptic" literature; the term has come to mean "catastrophe" or "end of the world" in common use, but it literally means "what is uncovered," i.e., a revelation. The veil between our natural world and God's supernatural world is pulled aside in a series of visions that include fantastic imagery, mysterious pronouncements, and a fixation on the significance of numbers. Yet what seems overwrought or simply bizarre actually is rather familiar to us. Much of the imagery, especially in these chapters, has made its way into our worship ("Holy, holy, holy..."), our hymns (in Hymn 657, "Love divine, all loves excelling," we sing "till we cast our crowns before thee," 4:10), and our iconography. The "four living creatures," winged angels with four different faces in 4:6-7, have become ubiquitous symbols of the four gospels: the human face is Matthew, the lion is Mark, the ox is Luke, and the eagle is John.
The stuff with numbers isn't so weird either, once a few basics of the code are grasped. Seven is important in these chapters; it indicates God's creation and thus perfection. Three-and-a-half, then, seen in constructions such as 42 months (3-1/2 years), is its opposite and a symbol of evil, or chaos. Four is the number of levels of creation, and therefore of power; twelve is the number of tribes of Israel and disciples of Jesus, so it points to God's people. The patterns of these numbers orient our grasp of the vision.
The author was long held to be the same as the gospel writer and disciple, but that has been discredited; and whether this John was banished to Patmos or just living there in semi-seclusion is still hotly debated. The most likely date for the book is late first century; some argue for the mid-60s because it is easy to interpret the number of the beast, 666, as Nero, and that was the period of his persecution of Christians – yet the book seems to assume not a present of persecution but rather a present complacency with a time of severe trial to come.
And the book actually has an order and structure to it. There are three stories told in Revelation: Jesus appears to John on Patmos and dictates letters to seven churches along the western end of Asia Minor (chapters 1-3 – don't linger here, as we have no idea about the political situations to which the letters refer); John is taken to heaven to see God's court and how God's reign will come (chapters 4-11); and the cosmic war is waged and the new Jerusalem arrives (chapters 12-22). What is most important is the faith that there is a cosmic realm behind and beyond this earthly realm and our struggles and purpose are not separate from God but part and parcel of God's plan.
The second half of Revelation focuses on the cosmic war envisioned as the end of creation – "end," as in terminal point, and "end," as in purpose and fulfillment. Earthly evil – oppression, idolatry, greed, persecution, suffering – is linked to a cosmic realm of evil and its final defeat at the hands of the risen Christ and the angels of God. Beasts of various hideous types rise and fall and rise and then finally fall for good, as the Messiah who is not a war leader but a sacrificed lamb nonetheless has the power to conquer Satan and Death. The Roman Empire, envisioned as "the great whore" (17:1) and referred to as "Babylon," is but the earthly manifestation of this power of evil and of its ultimate defeat.
Elaine Pagels argues in her book Revelations (2012) that this cosmic war reflects the author's horror as he looks back at the Jewish Wars. These were the uprisings in the 70s against the Roman Empire that resulted in the destruction of the Temple and the burning of Jerusalem; John counteracts this historical reality with his vision of God's justice being hammered out once and for all. Work your way through this wild imagery, but don't get hung up on it – the key is the movement to the end, the vision of the new Jerusalem descending from heaven, the city where God dwells with humans so that no Temple is needed, no other source of light is required, and all suffering and evil will be over.
What does this vision do for us? Is it just pie in the sky? Or can we find sufficient hope in a picture of God's creation brought to its fulfillment to seek to work toward our own new Jerusalems? I believe that the God of love connects all of us to each other, to every part of the creation, and to the Creator's own self – and such a vision can be sufficient to inspire us to find those connections in our lives, here and now and always.
P.S. Pagels is also the person who introduced me to that crazy image of the Whore of Babylon that I've posted here. I have no idea where she found it!