This is a follow-up to last week’s piece on “Seven Things Revelation Is Not.”
Joseph L. Mangina (PhD, Yale University) is professor of systematic theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. He is the editor of Pro Ecclesia, serves on the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue commission for Canada, and is the author of two books on the thought of Karl Barth.
Having explored some of the things Revelation is not, let’s take a look at what it is. In the spirit of Revelation, once I again have seven items:
Seven Things Revelation Is
1. A terrible book. Terrible, in the old-fashioned sense of terror-inducing. It makes for hard reading. In the course of writing my commentary, I inevitably arrived at chapter 9, where I encountered the following:
And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit. He opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft. Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them. (Rev. 9:1–6 ESV)
Immediately I understood why some Christians avoid this book of the Bible, and why others are perversely attracted to it. If nothing else, Revelation is an exercise in “reality therapy.” The world it describes is not the world as we would like it to be. It shows the world as it is—beset by sin and ugliness and destruction. As a middle-class Christian, I know that my great temptation is to want the world to be “nice”; Revelation does not afford me that luxury. It is a revelation (precisely) of things as they really are and as they will one day be. And it is a revelation that even the world of horrors is really God’s world. If there is any comfort in the passage I’ve just cited, it consists in the little word “given”—the locusts “were given power….”
Given by whom? We need hardly ask. The Apocalypse often uses the passive voice like that to denote divine action. It is God alone who is in charge of history, God alone who judges evil, just as it is God alone who makes things right. Even in the terrors of history we can be confident that God is at work, albeit by what Luther called his “left” or hidden hand.
2. A beautiful book. The flip side of the terrors of the Apocalypse are its glories. It is a gorgeous book, filled with images that have fed the Christian imagination across the centuries: the heavenly worship around the rainbow-encircled throne of God (chaps. 4–5); the white-robed army of martyrs who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14); the woman clothed with the sun and with the moon at her feet, an image at once of Israel, the church, and the Virgin Mary (chap. 12); and not least, the new Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (21:2 ESV). Nor should we forget the music of the Apocalypse, the hymns and songs that invite the hearer to participate in the praise of God. All this is a double tribute: to the Creator God who is Beauty itself and to the beauties of the world he has made.
3. A prophetic book. Richard Bauckham wrote a study of Revelation titled The Climax of Prophecy (T&T Clark, 1993). This gets it just about right. Even if John did not refer to his book as a prophecy (which he does several times; cf. 1:3; 22:7, 10, 18–19), his visions clearly stand in the line of Israel’s prophets. Like the prophets of the old covenant, John is sent to speak the word of God to his people Israel at a particular juncture of their history—in this case, the messianic age that concludes Israel’s and the world’s history. Some episodes in the work are virtual replays of events in the earlier prophets, e.g., Daniel’s vision of four terrible beasts or Ezekiel’s eating the scroll and measuring the temple.
4. An apocalyptic book. This may seem perfectly redundant; after all, we get our word apocalypse from the Greek name of Revelation. But it is still worth underscoring. An apocalypse, we might say, is a particular form of prophecy in which the visionary element predominates. All prophets are assigned the task of speaking the Lord’s word. A specifically apocalyptic prophet receives the word in the form of visions: “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches” (Rev. 1:11 ESV, emphasis added). For this reason Revelation bears a special kinship to “late” Israelite prophecy (Ezekiel, Zechariah, Daniel), as well as to extracanonical Jewish works like 2 Esdras. Here I will make a suggestion: that the more purely eschatological a prophetic work is, the more purely visionary will be its form.
5. A book for the church. Revelation is addressed to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia—Anatolia, the western edge of today’s Turkey. Already the church fathers read this as symbolic: the seven churches represent the whole church, seven being the number of fullness. That fullness, however, encompasses time as well as space; our churches are part of the same community that John—but then also God, Christ, and the Spirit—addresses in this work. The Apocalypse was written for the whole community of God’s people, and it is to be read that way, not as a private coded message for a spiritual elite (see the first point in my previous post on “Seven Things Revelation Is Not”).
Revelation being a book for the church, it is something of a scandal that so little of it appears in our Christian lectionaries. The irony is especially acute with regard to the letters to the seven churches in chapters 2–3. If we never hear these texts in the context of worship, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to hear of our own apostasies, be chastened but then also comforted by the word of Christ, be encouraged in the face of evil, and hear the eschatological promises given to “the one who conquers.” Recovering an ecclesial hermeneutic for the Apocalypse is an ongoing task of scriptural interpretation in our time.
6. A liturgical book—and therefore a political book. This seems incongruous to us moderns, who are used to thinking of religion as essentially a private act. In our society there is no formal difference between deciding to go to church and deciding to go bowling. But for the ancients, matters of cult were tied to matters of political organization—and with good reason. “Whom or what shall we worship?” and “how shall the city, or state, or empire be organized?”—these are but forms of a single question. In the historical setting of the Apocalypse, the great question was the church’s relation to Roman politics and economic order, powerfully symbolized by the cult of the emperor. By lighting a pinch of incense before the emperor’s image, one confessed him (and implicitly the order of which he was at the center) to be divine. Many Christians—certainly not all—refused to do this. Much of the Apocalypse makes sense as the embodiment of this refusal. A key to the book’s politics is the blood of the martyrs.
The flip side of rejecting idolatry, however, is the positive expression of devotion to Israel’s Lord as the one true God. This is what makes the Apocalypse a powerfully liturgical work. It is shot through with images of worship. It is filled with hymns, songs, prayers, incense, movement. Chapters 4 and 5, in particular, present a kaleidoscope of liturgy. All this is, once again, a kind of politics though not of the utilitarian sort. Worship isn’t ordered to some extrinsic end but expresses the truth about God, ourselves, and the world. Worship is simply what is good for us, because God himself is all goodness. I think we can safely say that if today’s church had more ballsy forms of worship, the world might notice that we Christians actually have something quite interesting to say.
7. A book about Jesus. A common failing of novice journalists is “burying the lede,” i.e., waiting too long to tell your reader what the story is about. John does not have this problem. It is ironic that people search for the coded meaning of Revelation, when the book’s theme is announced in the opening line: “The revelation [apocalypse] of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must happen soon” (1:1 NIV).
In Greek as in English, that “of” is ambiguous. The Apocalypse is both the revealing of Jesus and Jesus’s own act of revealing. Of course it is also the revelation of God, received in the imaginative power of the Spirit; Revelation is a trinitarian as well as a christocentric work. But Christ is the key to the work, the key who opens the “door” to all the visions (cf. 4:1).
You can read my commentary to see how this works out in detail. Let me conclude, though, by briefly recapitulating the previous six points, to suggest how Christ is the key to these as well:
(1) While there is much in John’s visions to terrify us, we can trust that God is not ultimately against humanity: at the absolute center of John’s world is “the one who loves us,” the Lamb who suffers violence at our hands.
(2) The work of Christ in Revelation is not narrowly individualistic but rather aimed at the redemption precisely of God’s creation and of all that is good, true, and beautiful within it; see the heavenly city in chapters 21–22.
(3) As a prophet, John is given to speak the word of God. But Christ is that Word (cf. 19:11). Note the convergence here with the Fourth Gospel.
(4) As already mentioned, what is “apocalypsed” in Revelation is Christ himself—his divine identity, his death as triumph over the forces of evil, his coming again to redeem his own. Here, I’d like to enter a small but important correction to my Brazos commentary. For reasons that now elude me, I don’t emphasize nearly as much as I should have the way the worship scene in chapter 5 affirms the divinity of Christ: God and the Lamb are honored in a single act of devotion. Worshiping Jesus—what an extraordinary thing for a group of first-century Jews to be doing. Very good on this theme is Richard Bauckham’s The Theology of the Book of Revelation. I suppose I didn’t feel it necessary to restate what Bauckham had already said so well, but clearly, this was falling down on my job as a commentator!
(5) It is Jesus Christ who, through John’s visions, addresses the church—not just in the late first century but today. Both the promises and the warnings of the Apocalypse are directed to the Christian community. It is not a prediction about the future directed to the world at large.
(6) As Christ is at the center of Revelation’s worship, so he is at the center of its politics. The book may be read as posing the following question: what would it look like if a community worshiped not the powers of the present age but the power that God self-revealed in his Son Jesus? What sort of politics would honor blood spilled not in military conquest but in martyrdom? What would it mean for a people to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4)?
I hope these musings have whetted the reader’s appetite for the Apocalypse. As John devoured the scroll, which tasted sweet as honey though it made his stomach bitter (10:9), may you know the sweetness of the book he wrote. Take, eat, delight. I’d be gratified if my Brazos commentary aided your appreciation of John’s act of witness.