So, here we are at the final post in this 5-part series. If you’ve made it this far, then I tip my hat to you : )
In the first post, I suggested that the traditional interpretive frameworks for approaching the book of Revelation are all a bit naff, and that we would be better off approaching the text with a more well-rounded triple-layered approach consisting of a contextual examination, an intertextual examination, and a literary-rhetorical examination. In the next three posts, I explained each of these ‘layers’ in order seeking to lay-out a reasonably comprehensive introduction to approaching the text in the space available here (excluding, obviously, detailed exegetical examination).
In this last post, I want to try to bring it all together (…as best I can). In order to do that, I am basically going to be asking the following questions:
1) What did the text mean to the original recipients?
2) What might it mean to us?
We’ll pretty much jump straight into, but I did just want to take the opportunity here to mention something that I think is incredibly important, and I want to say it as clearly as I can.
The book of Revelation was not written to us, but it does, I think, have a powerful message for us.
If one thing should have become clear in these posts by this point, it’s that the book of Revelation made a whole lot of sense to its original recipients. It was written to a bunch of real people in the first century, by a real person living in the first century. The author wrote the text as a prophetic letter, expecting, I think it’s safe to say, that people would take it seriously and adjust their behaviour accordingly.
Revelation was not written to ‘us’, in the 21st century. It just wasn’t. I don’t care what the Left Behind novels say, it’s just not the case.
But don’t be too worried by that.
Romans wasn’t written to us, and neither was the Corinthian correspondence. Galatians, Ephesians, 1 Peter, 1 John and James weren’t written to ‘us’ either. None of the biblical literature was directly written to ‘us’! It was all written in very real socio-historical contexts, and all these texts, I think we can assume, made sense to their original recipients.
But that doesn’t mean there is not a message in it all for us.
Though each of these texts are more-or-less ‘situation specific’ (especially the epistles!), each of them, I think, have important things to say that we might take hold of. Our task is not to try to divorce the meaning of the texts from their original contexts, but rather to embrace a text in all its situatedness and seek to move from that point to some sort of application to our own situation.
This is, basically, what I’m trying to do here with the book of Revelation. Let’s begin, then, with what it might have meant to the original hearers in their context.
What did the Book of Revelation Mean to its First Recipients?
Without the space to go into detailed exegetical analysis, I’m going to suggest here that the message(s) of the book of Revelation to its original recipients can be seen clearly in the ‘messages’ to the churches in chapters 2-3. These messages, then, act as the foundation from which the rest of the text (the unified, extended visionary portion) builds on. It is worth pointing out two important points in this regard. Firstly, the visionary portion of the text is still speaking to the same situations as those outlined in chapters 2-3. The recipients are meant to be taken on a journey in this section of the text where the points the author is making in chapters 2-3 are illustrated in visionary form, and the hearers are meant to understand the points that are being made here and modify their behaviour accordingly. Secondly, the ‘messages’ to each individual church are, in a sense, meant to be heard and understood by all. With the contents of each ‘letter’ (in chapters 2-3) made public to all the congregations, it’s kind of like each group gets to ‘read the mail’ intended for the other congregations too (and vice versa). As such, it is important to note that there are at least a couple of ‘main’ points being made to the churches. These points, I am going to suggest, encapsulate the basic meaning of the book of Revelation as a whole.
So, what are they?
Basically, it seems that, for the author of Revelation, there are two main options for his recipients.
1) They can be faithful, prophetic witnesses to Jesus—even to the point of death (if necessary)—and experience the vindication of God, or
2) They can align themselves with doomed ‘Babylon’, and go down with the sinking ship.
In regards to the first of these, it is important to note that, from beginning to end, Jesus is described as the ‘faithful and true witness’ (1:5; 19:11). In his life, prophetic ministry, death, and resurrection, Jesus has provided the model for all Christians to follow. For John, the followers of the Lamb are meant to look like him, and ‘follow him wherever he goes’ (14:4). As such, the way Christians are meant to interact with the world is to do the very same sorts of things that Jesus did.
Jesus came and faithfully declared prophetic witness to the work of God, and confronted the empires of the world with grace and truth. Just when it looked like the Beast of Empire had chewed him up and spat him out, Jesus was vindicated through his resurrection. Jesus, the slain lamb, has become the vindicated, victorious, glorified Son of Man, and now stands as the essential model to all who would dare suggest that they are his followers. Where Empire responded with power and violence, Jesus responded with prophetic witness and self-sacrifice. And his followers are meant to do the same, even if it means death! (Rev. 2:10). In doing so, they too will be ‘victorious’ over the ‘Powers’ of the world, and will share in Jesus’ vindication (note the imagery of Daniel 7 in Revelation 20).
Now, I indicated in the second post that the usual understanding of empire-wide persecution of Christians was just not happening by this point in time. What I also indicated in that post, though, was that John saw that this sort of tension was unavoidable for all who would follow Jesus. Christians could never be satisfied with the idea that ‘Caesar is Lord’, because only Jesus can be Lord. As such, conflict was inevitable. There seems to have already been some isolated rain as a precursor to the coming storm with the death of Antipas (Rev. 2:13. Note that Antipas is called a ‘faithful witness’), and John seems to have been fairly confident that it would eventually break with all its fury.
He was right.
What he is calling his recipients to here, then, is a radical life of obedience to the example of Jesus, as his faithful prophetic witnesses no matter what the cost. Such a life might not ever be comfortable, but John assures his recipients (through the messages and the vision) that God is still in control and that the structures of empire simply cannot stand against (nor extinguish!) the ‘Kingdom of God’. The point of the book of Revelation is that God’s perspective on the situation is now revealed into a context where things may have looked hopeless; where it may have seemed like nothing could ever stand against this mighty beast of empire. But John assures those he is writing to that God is still in control, and all the bullies of empire would not have the last word. Even if they were to experience the violence of empire for their faithful witness, they could remain confident that they would nevertheless be vindicated in the process. ‘Victory’ was not won through force and violence, but through faithfulness and truth and self-sacrifice. ‘Victory’, it seems, has been completely — radically — redefined. Furthermore (and what really needs to be treated in a post of its own), the essential victory has already been won! Christians do not have to look to the future for when God will finally act; ‘victory’ has already been attained through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection! Wherever Christians live in faithfulness and truth, this victory is already being enacted.
And all of this meant something very important to those who chose to align themselves with Rome.
Rome, for John ‘Babylon 2.0’, was kind of like the Titanic.
Now, the Titanic looked impressive. It felt impressive. It seemed unlike anything else that had come before it. In the words of the smarmy Cal Hockley in the 1997 film adaptation of the Titanic story, “God himself could not sink this ship!”
Of course, what looked so impressive and mighty suffered from the same weaknesses as that which had gone before it.
When confronted with the statement from the outraged (and snooty) Mr Ismay, “But…this ship can’t sink!”, the words of the shipbuilder, Thomas Andrews, become chilling: “She’s made of iron, sir! I assure you she can, and she will. It’s a mathematical certainty.”
These are the same kind of words that John speaks about Rome. It was ‘impressive’, to be sure, but it certainly wasn’t unsinkable.
For John, Rome was the biggest, baddest, proudest, most idolatrous empire the world had ever seen. Rome promised peace, security, and prosperity, but for John it was just seductive propaganda that masked the violent, oppressive and exploitative reality. Rome invited other nations to join her, but if they wouldn’t come willingly to submit themselves to Rome’s ‘care’ then they would face the wrath of the beast.
Rome would always see to it that Rome came out on top.
Now, it must be said that some areas prospered greatly out of their dealings with Rome. The Province of Asia was one of these areas.
Having been ‘bequeathed’ to Rome from the Pergamene king, Attalus III, in 133 BCE (due to his lack of an heir), the Roman province of ‘Asia’ ended up doing quite well for itself. Though the first century BCE saw it face some economic difficulties (primarily due to powerful people in Rome seeking to profit personally from the newly-acquired region), by the mid-late first century CE it was doing quite well for itself indeed. With an abundance of natural resources, and being situated geographically at a strategic point for trade by both land and sea, many of the inhabitants of the region ended up prospering greatly.
For John, this was a dangerous situation.
For those who were able to profit out of the situation, the lure of Rome, as John saw it, was like a sleazy call to sell out. Though it may not have seemed like much to ‘play the game’ of Roman civil and religious life if one was able to make ludicrous profits out of it, John saw this as a critical decision for Christians. For John, this was essentially about where one’s allegiance rested: with the Lamb, or with the Beast. To ignore the call to a life of faithful prophetic witness in order to obtain wealth was, for John, to declare allegiance to the Beast. Though it may have seemed like a good idea (judging by the current situation), John’s message was intended to assure his recipients that this was not actually the case. This extraordinary Empire (indeed, all Empire) was already fatally undermined by the victory of Jesus, even if it did not know it yet. As such, binding oneself to empire was, for John, an utterly hopeless move.
This Empire was also based on oppression and exploitation.
Though it was true that the Province of Asia was ‘rich’ with abundant natural resources, it was also nevertheless true that prosperity for one usually meant oppression or exploitation for another (or, perhaps more accurately, many others). There was great wealth through the region (and the empire as a whole) in this period, but there was also a greater number of people living in poverty, barely surviving from day-to-day. Of course, when something like famine broke out, the food produced in some of these regional areas was shipped first to Rome (to ensure the wellbeing of the inhabitants there), leaving many in the very areas where the crops were produced to starve to death. Precious materials like gold had become ubiquitous in many places for the rich (with some writers despairing about what had once been so rare and privileged becoming available to all and sundry), but many others were left with barely the basics for survival. There are even reports that, in Rome, some of the wealthy residents were having parties where they dissolved expensive pearls in vinegar in order to consume them and prove just how rich they were (in the tradition of Cleopatra), even while many in the provinces died in their poverty.
And Rome was brutal.
Though the Roman propaganda highlighted ‘peace’, this peace was maintained at the point of a sword. The Roman military was incredibly efficient, and incredibly effective, and dissent was not tolerated. Rome would take what it wanted, whether the local inhabitants wanted what Rome offered or not.
And so John called it for how he saw it.
Aligning oneself with Rome was aligning oneself with the very enemy of God. This proud, arrogant empire had set itself up as saviour to all, but John saw through this facade. Rome was set up to reward the powerful and to crush the rest.
Money could be made, but John asks the critical question concerning what price someone would be willing to pay for buying into this kind of prosperity.
And so John called for a choice to be made. In Revelation 18:4, we here this called summed up in the simple command: “Come out of her my people!”
Remembering that ‘prophecy’ was focused much more on the current situation that predicting the future for its own sake, John prophetically calls those who had become a little bit too comfortable with empire out of their slumber and back to faithfulness to God. He expects a decision to be made, and he expects that this decision would have tangible outcomes on the behaviour of those listening to his message. Perhaps this was the first time that they had heard such a message, and John’s words became like a bucket of cold water in their face as they came to realise that they had been aligning themselves with the already-defeated beast of empire. Perhaps they were starting to buckle under the weight of the pressures they were beginning to face for their faithful witness, and John’s words would have come as a comforting reassurance that they were to continue on in their witness, and that it would not all be for nothing.
Either way, these are the two most prominent messages within the book of Revelation to the original recipients.
But what, if any, relevance do they have for us today?
What Might the Book of Revelation Mean to ‘Us’?
I don’t think it’s stretching things too far to say that these same messages fit pretty well with a modern audience.
Though, in Australia, I don’t face the sort of opposition that John’s hearers may have started to face in the years after Revelation was written (being teased because Christianity might be viewed as being a bit ‘nerdy’ doesn’t count!), there are certainly Christians around the world in situations where the message of Revelation to hold firm to the prophetic witness of Jesus is desperately needed. The situation may sometimes feel overwhelming for these people, and thus the book of Revelation speaks powerful into their context, comforting and assuring them that their work is not in vain. To remain faithful and true means being vindicated and victorious, and this life of self-sacrifice is the only key to real ‘victory’.
But I think, actually, that the second message of Revelation outlined above is more desperately needed in my context, and probably for many Christians in the West.
This might get a little controversial.
Though Christians in the West are often quick to identify the ‘beasts of empire’ with the Communists, or the Nazis, or with ‘Islamo-Fascism’, I think that many might be surprised to find that many Western nations function out of some of the very same principles John identifies in Rome.
Much of the propaganda we hear is about obtaining prosperity and gaining for ourselves the ‘American/Australian/whatever Dream’. If we just dedicate ourselves to this pursuit, then we will obtain it and, in doing so, obtain happiness. We too can gain hold of the ‘special things’, that are out of the reach of ‘ordinary people’.
For John, this is the same sort of idolatry that draws people into the intoxicating embrace of the Great Prostitute.
What we don’t often hear about is how much of our economic systems are based on exploitation and oppression. We don’t often hear that massive profits are sometimes (often!) gained off the back of exploitative practices. We don’t listen carefully enough when we hear that the makers of the trendy ‘must-have’ electronic equipment exploit foreign workers in the pursuit of ridiculous profits. Even if this point is raised, it is usually focused on just one company (take Apple as an example), forgetting the fact that pretty much every electronic device in every house uses components manufactured this way.
We don’t often hear that our clothes are, many times, produced through exploitative practices, or that multi-national corporations manipulate tax data to avoid paying their fair share of tax in economies that need that money desperately. We don’t often hear that a significant proportion of our food and coffee and chocolate is produced through forced or child labour. We don’t often hear about the way in which our relentless pursuit of ‘more’ is destroying our environment, and that it simply can’t continue on this way.
And we don’t often acknowledge that our governments are implicit in all of this, enacting policy that favours the powerful and oppresses the weak, all in the name of short-term political gain.
For me, John’s visionary message to the Christians in the churches around Ephesus at the end of the first century, understood in all its situatedness, helps me see the same sorts of things in my own context. John’s bold message to the Christians in Asia Minor helps me call it for what it is, tearing down the facade and identifying the ‘beast’ of empire in my own situation.
His message is still powerful: “Come out of her my people!”
I don’t often hear churches proclaiming this message. Somehow we seem to think that the Christian message is compatible with the propaganda of empire.
It is not.
As Christians, we are meant to be living in a way that enacts the Kingdom of God in the here and now. This kingdom is based on faithfulness and truth, on self-sacrifice and love, rather than violence and exploitation. When we begin to slip back into the ways of empire, we must once again hear the words of rebuke that John offers even to us here and now. We are called to something more.
And this might get uncomfortable.
Though it may not end up with full-blown persecution, it is guaranteed to encounter opposition. When truth is spoken to power, things always get a little tense. But no matter what opposition comes, we are to hold fast to the example of the Lamb, steadfastly refusing to respond with violence or hate. We must subvert such action with self-sacrifice and grace.
This does not, however, mean passivity.
We are called to an active faith; a faith which boldly challenges oppression and exploitation. This faith will never be satisfied while dehumanising power structures remain, and will actively work at bringing these structures down.
And, if I can take it even one more controversial step forward, we need to apply all of this to the church too.
John reminds us, over and over again, that those with ears should hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. I think that we could do sometimes with hearing what God might have to say about the abuse of power and the use of oppressive or exploitative structures even within the church.
Needless to say, such structures are not birthed in God.
Are we willing, then, to have the sometimes uncomfortable conversations about where such structures might be lurking in our churches and denominations? Are we willing to be so serious about our witness that we will do the hard work of critical self-reflection, guided by the Spirit, to make sure that our churches have not unconsciously (or otherwise) taken on structures that don’t belong?
This is a radical message. It is a difficult one. It is an uncomfortable one.
But it is, I think, I fair understanding of the message of the book of Revelation.
The question is: are we willing to hear it?
For Further Reading:
Some have asked me what I think are some really useful resources on the book of Revelation. I will indicate here just a couple of resources that I think are excellent:
- Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation. This is, quite simply, the best book you will ever read on Revelation. It is short, but it packs an incredible punch.
- Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation. This is quite a bit longer than Bauckham’s other book on Revelation, but it does provide a significant amount of exegetical and historical detail in regards to some of the points he makes in Theology.
- Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now. This is an absolute must-read. You will quickly figure out that Howard-Brook and Gwyther’s work has been very significant for me!
- David deSilva, Seeing Things John’s Way: The Rhetoric of the Book of Revelation. This is a bit long (and you probably get the general idea from reading the first 3-4 chapters), but it is excellent.
- Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World. Schüssler Fiorenza is an outstanding scholar, and has been instrumental in regards to rhetorical examinations of the book of Revelation.
- M. Eugene Boring, Revelation (in the Interpretation series). The introduction to this book is exceptional in regards to understanding the imagery in Revelation. The commentary itself is not great.
- G.B. Caird, The Revelation of St John the Divine. This is great if you want a nice, simple commentary to preach from.
This is a very basic list, but I think it contains a number of very useful resources.