Read the text here: Revelation 1:4-8
A Vision from Patmos
Of all the books in the New Testament there is none quite as controversial and difficult to read and understand as the last book, the Book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse of John. Revelation is filled with all kinds of wild and strange visions and a quick reading can leave the reader completely baffled as to what in the world is John trying to convey. This has led to a whole host of different approaches to interpreting this book. Some believe that everything is in code and all you need to do is to discover, or figure out the code and it will unlock the mysteries of the universe and you will be able to see God’s timetable for the end of the world. For these interpreters who think of Revelation as a “roadmap” to the end times, those fantastic visions are filled with horror and terror. They see global destruction in those images and for them the book should induce fear. This fear-based “roadmap” approach is really quite popular and has spawned any number of books (“The Late, Great Planet Earth” by Hal Lindsay, and the “Left Behind” series) and is the basis for the rash of “apocalyptic” movies that all have the premise that “apocalypse” means complete global destruction.
The biggest problem with this approach is that it is simply not consistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospels tell of a God who loves the creation so much that God goes to extraordinary lengths to show that love, and to shower grace upon the beloved creation. God goes so far as to be born into the world and enter fully into the human experience – including suffering, pain and death. The Gospel is a story of God’s love, God’s promise of eternal presence and the abundance of unconditional grace show to the people whom God loves wildly, madly and passionately. How is the fear, violence, terror and destruction based interpretation of Revelation consistent with that? It isn’t! So there must be another way of looking at Revelation. And there is. But first a reminder from Martin Luther about how to interpret the bible – Luther’s understanding should always lay at the foundation of any Christian interpretation of Scripture: Always read the Bible through the lens of the Gospel. When in doubt The Gospels always should not only color our interpretations but should determine how we even approach these books. Any interpretation that contradicts the Gospels should be rejected.
So we are going to look at Revelation, not as a timetable or roadmap to the end times, but rather we are going to ask the question – What did this letter mean to the people to whom it was addressed in the late 1st century (or early 2nd century)? Once we have some idea of who they are and what this letter was trying to convey to them, then we can apply those lessons to our own lives. And what do we know? Well, that the author was a Christian leader named John and that he was from Asia Minor (now Turkey) (BTW - this is NOT the Apostle John, who was the “Beloved Disciple” of the Gospels – that was the assumption historically, but there are a number of very convincing reasons that this was a different John); That this John was exiled to the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea (It is little more than an oversized rock); That this John was very concerned for the churches he left behind in Asia Minor and so he writes this letter to the churches in the 7 major cities. Finally, John uses the term “apocalypse” to describe his own vision. And the word “apocalypse” in Greek does NOT mean end times or global destruction; rather it means “unveiling,” “revealing,” or “revelation.”
The question at the heart of this letter for the Christian communities in the 7 cities of Asia Minor was this – how do we live as Christians in relation with a dominant non-Christian or secular culture that is not only apathetic to Christianity, but also can be downright hostile? It is sometimes assumed that the over-riding issue was persecution, but that was not the primary issue. There was some persecution, mostly localized, but of more concern to John is the tendency he sees for the Christians in these cities to accommodate and assimilate and to compromise their beliefs in order to get along in the society. For those who are being persecuted the Book of Revelation is designed to be a letter of comfort; to those who are assimilating their faith into the dominant culture the book is designed to make them at least a little, if not a lot, uncomfortable.
Here then is an initial point of contact between the Christian communities of antiquity and our own community. How do we live in relation with the dominant culture? Do we take the call to discipleship seriously enough that it affects and influences our lives and our way of living in the world and relating to others? Do we live lives that are inclusive of all people? Do we give of our time, talents and treasure to the ministry of Christ? Do we make an effort to not only work to assist and provide for the poor, the hungry, the sick and suffering, but do we work for justice to eliminate the structures that continue to insure that inequity and injustice continue as a part of the structure of our society? What do we do to interrupt the social and economic cycle that insures that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. These are the questions that lay at the heart of the Book of Revelation.
The Book of Revelation is a book about discipleship. It is a book that celebrates the victory through weakness, power through suffering and life through death that come from the cross of Christ! And it has some important and profound things to teach us about how to live as Christians in the midst of a hostile and unjust world.
An audio recording of this sermon is posted at wartburgparish.com