The most popular and feared book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, suffers a thousand deaths every time someone gets this wrong. You can hear it at any coffee shop (at least in my town), church parking lot, or casual argument at work when a co-worker is trying to convince you of all the things they have learned from Hal Lindsey or John Hagee. Heck, you’ll probably even hear it around the Thanksgiving dinner table or around the Christmas Tree of Baby Jesus. As with many arguments, this phrase is often used to win, to be right. The Bible is the ultimate trump card to win all arguments; and let’s face it, it’s not really being used for much else nowadays. The Bible functions apologetically as the proverbial ace up one’s sleeve…and as the ace begins to get slammed on the table in defense of a particular end time scenario this quaint phrase rears its ugly head and becomes the second incarnation of Jesus the Christ as someone says, “Well, the Book of Revelations says…”
Stop. The. Presses.
There is no Book of Revelations. Sometimes this reference to the scariest book in the Bible is just shorthanded. People get lazy, so instead of calling it “The Letter of Revelation,” “The Apocalypse of John,” or even “The Book of Revelation,” we have given it the shorthand name “revelations.”
Perhaps you’ve heard it said like this. As you try to defend the idea that maybe the secular State of Israel is not the same as the ancient historical reality of Israel and then build on that nuance for a deeper appreciation of the complex geopolitical situation of the Middle East, your conversation partner may halt you mid-stream and say, “Well, in Revelations is says…”
Again, there is no “revelations” in the Bible. This may seem like a minor point of contention, something that those of us obsessed with semantics would find amusing while the rest of the world is concerned with praxis and scriptural applicability to our lives.
Not so fast. You see, the language we use builds the worlds in which we live. We construct worlds with our language…our language is not just constructed by our worlds. The same is true for our biblical understandings. The bible doesn’t just shape our language; our language about the Bible also shapes how we understand it. And in this case, confusing “The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ,” or “The Book of Revelation” with “revelations” plural creates a gross methodological starting point wherein we have already begun to read this book incorrectly by our very naming of it wrongly.
Let me quote the first verse of the Book of Revelation, which is also a historical letter to 7 historical Churches. The following is my own translation.
John writes, “The revelation of Jesus Christ that God gave to his servants concerning what must quickly come into being, signifying the sending of its message through his messenger and servant John.”
John does not call the following Letter a series of “revelations” about Jesus nor does he title his message as one of multiple meanings or purposes. His point is clear. He is writing A (singular) Apocalypse about Jesus.
Now, unlike popular parlance would have us believe, the word apocalypse does not mean end of the world, mass destruction, fiery balls of molten rock falling from the sky, visions of John Cusack and the Movie 2012…Apocalypse means none of this. The language of apocalypse has taken on a ton of baggage because of the Book of Revelation for sure, but such has happened not because Revelation warrants it, but because we are reading it as a book full of disasters rather than reading it as The (singular) message of the resurrected Christ we call Jesus and the work God has begun in his ministry.
Apocalypse is the Greek word that means to “reveal,” “to disclose,” or “to make known.” The word does not mean to hide, to puzzle or to cause massive destruction. What John is telling us at the very first sentence of this letter filled with apocalyptic imagery, revelatory imagery of ONE revealing, is that he is about to tell his readers who the Christ is. He is about to define him. He is about to disclose him to the world, not hide him away in some Bible code that only experts with massive book sales can unlock for the rest of us. Revelation is about disclosing the story of God in Christ working to redeem the world and bring about its new creation. It is not about giving John a secret message that his Churches would not understand…a message that would be locked away until 2000 years later when the world is on the verge of economic collapse, Russia and Iran are in cahoots and Israel is now in jeopardy of losing the veracity of its longest standing peace treaty with its very historical neighbor: Egypt.
NO! John is not interested in any of this. He is interested in giving us a vision of Jesus that is grounded in the imagery of the Hebrew Bible in such a way that the story of Jesus is simply the contiguous reality of what God had begun in those ancient stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is interested in Revealing Jesus to us! He is not trying to hide the Christ or his workings! And he is busy doing this in a literary type and genre that was used by oppressed peoples who felt as if the only way their worlds could be redeemed was for God to physically break into their present and alter their future.
Apocalypticist’s, such as John, are negative people and they have historical warrant for their lack of prophetic optimism one might find in older prophets such as Isaiah or Jeremiah. Apocalypticist’s use dark imagery, but only because they understand the nature of humanity and they witness to a strong historical track record in which humanity does not come around as it should, it does not follow the message of Christ and it is in love with power and the trappings of the worlds empires.
The people that write letters such as Revelation, Enoch or Esdras are feeling the sledge hammer of evil and they are sharing in the oppression and persecution of their brothers and sisters in Christ. They are writing with inspiration from an oppressed minority that has suffered immeasurably. They are labeled as atheists that wish to subvert the State and are accused of eating their children and drinking their blood in a ceremonial meal we now call Eucharist…for these kinds of people, who have seen their own brothers and sisters used by Nero as human torches to light the Roman skies at night…for these kinds of people, and for a person named John that is in Exile on a remote Island known as Patmos BECAUSE of his faith…for them the only language that will suffice is that of the literary type we now call apocalyptic because there is no other form and positioning of words that is able to not only capture their angst and despair but also provide them hope in a world full of beasts that are getting drunk on the blood of the saints!
But Just because it is a negative literary type that is employed by people of faith from around the years 200BCE to 200CE doesn’t mean that the letters or books that contain these images are trying to hide anything. Indeed the opposite is the case…what they are arguing is that the only way to see reality and the world is through this apocalyptic lens. It is the REAL world, the real picture of what is going on…not the picture of what will happen 2000 years after the writing of the document. John is speaking a word to the present. He is revealing Jesus in the present. He is not hiding Jesus under the Bushel of history awaiting his full disclosure to the enlightened ones amongst us in the year 2013 who have the ability to change all of their interpretations to fit history and to correct all of their previously bad interpretations’.
John is writing to reveal. He is not writing to hide and he titles his letter this in the very FIRST sentence if we will simply stop to read it. Let’s not read this Letter with all the expectations of the people who can’t read Greek…or they do read Greek and just skip the first sentence. You’d think they would have learned something in Elementary School English about context clues and following directions. John is giving us directions before we start reading…and he is telling us he is writing A (singular) revelation (disclosure) of who Jesus the resurrected Christ is as he opposes and destroys evil. He is not trying to hide anything.
Quit trying to play connect the dots…there are no dots to connect. Save your $ and quite buying all those “Left Behind” books and their historical revisionist counterparts that are now making their way on the scene.
So John is writing about A revealing of Jesus that is not convoluted but thoroughly dependent upon the story of God that is told throughout the Hebrew Bible and he is telling it in a singular kind of way.
In other words, it’s called Revelation, not Revelations.
People often confuse all the many images and plot lines that are developing within this mysterious letter with mini-revelations, mini-visions that constitute a larger whole. To a degree, this is correct. John, however, is not writing to give us snippets of historical details that can be understood apart from the resurrection of Jesus…apart from the Lamb of God who rides on his White Horse. There are many images and visions in the letter because the story of God in Christ is long and tedious. It is not easily flattened or easily summarized…it has been building as a metanarrative for at least 2500 years. History such as this that is melded together with a cosmic Christ event cannot be reduced to a mere retelling. It must be poetically and beautifully written so as to captivate its hearers and bring those of us as readers into its world, which is ironically our very own. These images are part of a coherent whole meant to disclose the meaning of Christ and the direction of the world…they are not meant to be read as mini-revelations that all have theological meaning apart from Christ.
All of these visions, chapters, characters, numbers, seals, bowls, prostitutes, angels, witnesses, etc., all of these work harmoniously together to tell the story of God in Christ. To tell the world that Christ is Lord, not Rome. To tell the world that Christ has defeated death, it has not defeated him. To tell the world that Rome is not the new creation, but God is busy about building a New Jerusalem. To tell the world that Jesus we call Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end…the I AM. This is the SINGULAR revelation (revealing) of the Apocalypse of John.
The way we talk about this letter profoundly affects the way we read it…and sadly, many people read it as if it is a 22 chapter encasement of multiple revelations rather than a part of the Gospel of Jesus the Christ that is attempting to show a singular revelation of this One whom the world crucified but whom God saw fit to resurrect.
Revelation is not meant to be confusing and it’s not meant to scare the you know what out of your you know where. It is meant to cast a vision toward the incarnation of God in Christ and tell ONE story of revealing to a world that is sadly mistaking the Pax Romana, or the Pax Americana, with the Pax Christi. Christ is king, Christ is Lord and he is such because of the work he has done…and John wants us to know of this work. This is why John writes his letter. He wants his churches to know the risen Christ in relation to their world…and as a part of our canon of Christian scripture the Church has said we confess we continue to need it to do so.
So next time you are tempted to skip the first sentence of Revelation, or you get in that discussion at church or with your neighbors about the bible and the last days and they tell you what it says in the “book of revelations,” just remind them that the work of Christ is singular and it is powerful. Confusion is not of God, it’s of the other guy.
And the Apocalypse of Jesus is not so much about destroying the world as it is redeeming lives. You might be surprised that in the face of such Good News, aka Gospel, you may just render them speechless.