My goodness! Revelation just keeps coming up in my life. It’s a wonderful mysterious book. Full of language not even Sgt. Peppers could muster up. The end of the world is probably one of the best selling ideas in cinema today. Every year, superheroes, and comedians take on some resemblance of judgement day and every election cycle, we hear that the opposing candidate is The Antichrist-the one forewarned to bring about the end of the age.
We are obsessed with the end of the world. And most of our ideas about the end of the world are from this short, little, and graphic letter written around the end of the first century.
Now many of the letters we find in the Bible can be informative and applicable without much study of the history surrounding it. You can read nearly all of the New Testament with little context of the sufferings of the early church and still come out with some great things you should apply to your life.
Many Christians have it as a source of pride that they have either taught through or group studied this book. Just yesterday I spoke with a pastor who’s first sermon series at his church plan was on Revelation. It’s become this religious seal of “Oh, you’re pretty serious about that Bible book.” But I’m constantly wondering…yeah, but did you discuss any of this stuff? In truth, I’ve never heard it shared from any pulpit. And by all means allow that to help you proceed with caution should you feel so. But I hope you would still take a step into it all with me.
Every time you study the history of these texts and audiences, The Bible becomes more colorful. You can get closer to the feel of the first ears that heard these words. Certain imagery becomes more apparent. Fig trees quit being just fig trees. Lost coins aren’t just lost coins. Sermons on mountains aren’t just sermons on mountains. Jesus mistaken as a gardener isn’t just some wrong assumption. You find there is an applicable purpose to these kinds of images. Things that without the context you might just throw assumption on or miss all together.
Perhaps no imagery has received this kind of gloss over by the casual reader more than Revelation. And very few churches have known what to do with it. Because it is a difficult reading. It’s weird. It’s intense. It’s hard to make sense of it all, and so- because we can’t make sense of it on any surface level – we take the assumption of literalness. It is God we are talking about. And if our faith has no limits, all things (even the bizarre) are possible.
The problem there is we overstep the imagery, and language. We overstep the history, and we turn assumptions into fact. And thus traditions are born that sell lots of movie tickets, books, paranoia, and billboards.
With all of that said, I’d like this post to help bring life to many of the Revelation texts in a bit of a casual way. If nothing else, give you some talking points for the next time Uncle Bob starts talking about the Liberals bringing about the end of all things.
Perhaps the grand declaration of the Christians in the first century was a very politically intrusive statement. The Christians grouped together around the declaration that Jesus, not Caesar, was Lord of Lords. That Jesus was the true King of Kings. That Jesus, was the Son of God. Now all of this is important because this was all language that belonged to the Empire. And soon after these followers of Jesus began their good news proclamations, that there was a new Kingdom, well that Empire starting wiping out as many of them as possible. These are the events that are taking place when the first of the four Gospels is written.
Mark is writing to the persecuted Christians in Rome around the time of Peter and Paul’s death. In the year 70AD, Jerusalem and the Temple protected by its walls were destroyed by the Romans. After a great fire in Rome, the Emperor Nero set out to blame and kill each of the Christians one by one. In Mark 13, you will find an account of Jesus foretelling, in detail, the events that took place. To the Christians he warned: Flee. All of these events are told with colorful and peculiar language. This type of language was apocalyptic in nature. The Greek word “apokalypsis” or “revelation” means in essence to unveil or take out of hiding; to uncover. The purpose of this language was rooted in a long tradition found especially in Judaism. Books like Ezekiel and Daniel share much of the same imagery of “one like a Son of Man coming on clouds” or “abominations of desolation.” It is recycled and reinterpreted language to speak of enemies and heroes of God. The point of such language like “stars falling out of the sky” and “periods of darkness” is to point the reader to reflect on the past when such similar language was placed on events that had taken place before. Apocalyptic language-like the Prophets- often would challenge the reigning political powers of the age. “That abomination would soon be defeated by one like a Son of Man coming on the clouds.” In other words: “Right now it feels like God is absent. Enemies have taken over the Temple where God should be. But believe in this promise: God will win.”
Now the language wasn’t some sort of strange code. It was language that would have been understood by the original audience. We, now being removed 2,000 years from this particular writing, have to dive deeply into the tradition and political history to understand what would have been quickly known in the final years of Domitian’s reign.
So before diving in, think about what is going on.
Christians are being Killed. It’s not safe to be a Christian if you live in the Empire. Often it’s easier to be a Jew. So why not abandon the faith and return to the former way.
This is actually what happens in 70AD when the Jews decide they will be their own Messiah and attempt to overtake Rome and push them out of the holy city. The Enemy, The Evil one, destroys them and their city for “not enduring with the faith.” Like. Jesus. Warns.
In the same way that the Gospel of Mark was written to encourage Christians in Rome to endure and persevere to the end, so is this apocalyptic letter named Revelation.