Text: Revelation 1:4-8
I want to look at one of the strangest books in the Bible. The book of Revelation. It strikes us as very strange. But apocalyptic is a distinct kind of sacred writing. There are brief passages in both the OT and NT. It is like our dreams because the language is very symbolic, and any interpretation is likely to be controversial because it is open to a multitude of understandings – some even more fantastic that the source documents!
It may be fun to try to identify the ‘Anti-Christ’ in our modern age or to decode numbers such as 666, but arguably this is to miss the point. It is to indulge in wild speculation and ultimately foolishness. There is a long history of interpretation from the reformers (Pope=Anti-Christ) to Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth (Zondervan, 1970). This was a favourite when I first became a Christian.
The Bible OT & NT
Part of what is strange is the prominence of mythological features. But such themes were present in the earliest writings of the Old Testament.
The Song of Miriam was “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:21).
In the prophetic tradition divine activity occurred on a cosmic plane and the earth was a reflection of the drama of the gods. The prophet was able to maintain the tension of being in the council of God, but having a role in speaking about what God is doing in the realm of history [well, mostly judgment]. Isaiah showed he was uncomfortable in the presence of God “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). The prophet was a spokesman for Yahweh, constantly confronting the King with God’s will. The prophet was called to maintain the balance between reality and vision, since he was called by the LORD to straddle two worlds, listening in one and speaking to the other.
The later prophets become more and more pessimistic. And there is a profound shift to genuine apocalyptic. For example, Daniel in chapter 12 is not sent back to the people, as was the case with Isaiah “Go and say to this people”, instead, “But you, Daniel, shut up these words, and seal the book, until the time of the end. Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.” (12:4) Apocalyptic becomes a matter of secret knowledge hidden until the time is right. For example, Daniel Chapter 7 the “son of man” which becomes a title that Jesus uses of himself in the NT Gospels. Already we can see that this is not a sign of humility, but an apocalyptic claim to be a divine judge of the end of time. In Daniel we see the emergence of apocalyptic characteristics such as (a) seemingly predicting events which establish the credibility of the seer; (b) history is used as a timetable indicating how close we are to the end of time final judgement.
We also see apocalyptic in the Gospels spoken by Jesus. One example is Matthew 24? If I have sparked your interest, you will need to look at passages such as Daniel 7 and Matthew 24 sometime this week.
2. The Book of Revelation
There is much that we do not know about this book. For a start it is not pure apocalyptic, there are elements of the prophetic and letter writing (such as Paul’s letters). The author is reputed to be the apostle John, the beloved disciple, but this is anything but certain. We know the book was written in a time of persecution, most likely under the reign of the Emperor Domitian (A.D. 81-96). While the first people hostile to the early church were Jews, later persecution was from the Roman authorities. There was considerable pressure on the early church to participate in trade guilds, festivals and emperor worship. The early church, once it broke away from being considered a sect of Judaism, was considered subversive and in rejecting the many gods – atheistic.
3. A Persecuted Church
I have recently read the novel Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. It is a story of Koreans living in Japan. They were a despised minority. Sunja is seduced by a gangster, who is married, she becomes pregnant but escapes shame in Korea by marrying a young pastor and migrating to Japan. He is employed at a poor church in the 1930s, eventually arrested by police with the senior pastor and a young administrative assistant. Their crime is to not worship the emperor. All are held in jail, repeatedly assaulted by police and eventually die from their injuries. The church rightly considered them martyrs.
I use this as an example because there are some remarkable parallels with the church reflected in the book of Revelation. They too are a persecuted minority, mostly poor and powerless in the great scheme of things, and treated harshly because of a refusal to worship the emperor.
It is this context that helps to fashion the theology of the book of Revelation.
4. Christ in the Prologue
As you hear these few verses ask yourself who is Jesus in this passage?
Rev 1: 4-8 “John, to the seven churches that are in Asia. Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come and from the 7 spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead and the ruler of the kings on earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion, for ever and ever. Amen. Look! He is coming with the clouds, every eye will see him, every even those who persecuted him and on his account and that all the tribes of the earth will wail and so it will be. Amen. I am the Alpha and the Omega says the Lord God who is and who was who is to come, the Almighty.”
In this passage we see indications of all a more developed theology of the early church emerging from the first century A.D. There is a Trinity of the exalted Father on the throne, “the seven spirits” (1:4) or the Holy Spirit and the glorified Jesus. All belong and all are worthy of worship, hence a trio of divine beings. The humanity of Jesus, obvious in the Gospels, is now past tense as far as the writer of the book of Revelation is concerned!
Notice the four-stage process of revelation: God, Jesus, an angel and finally the writer of secret knowledge: John. This made me somewhat uneasy as it is not dissimilar from what some churches claim today for claims of inerrancy. There is an urgency to respond to the message of the book “for the time is near” (1:3).
A magnificent second coming is also portrayed (1:7). There is a glorious metaphor of the Alpha and the Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. The vivid phrase “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (1:8) Verses 7-8 have a hymn-like quality and possibly reflect a fragment of the early church’s liturgy (cf. Phil 2:5-11).
What is a take-home message from this? I would like you to think about how much our beliefs are shaped by our social context. A persecuted powerless church needed a mighty Saviour. What we see is a very high Christology, where Christ becomes a divine figure ruling the earth with hardly a trace of the humanity of Christ in the Gospels. In contrast, most of us live comfortable, affluent and secure lives in Australia. It is easy for us to see Jesus in his humanity, perhaps as a good moral example of Christian living. If that is the case, then the Jesus of the book of Revelation will be a very strange figure indeed!
In St Paul’s Church, Yarrow, there is a wooden statue of the Venerable Bede carved from the trunk of the tree. Far from trying to chisel out the knots and walked to the wood, the artist uses them to convey the man bringing him out of the wood that would otherwise have been too twisted for any other use. The carving suggests how Bede himself had been shaped and used by God.
Think also of the church, twisted by historical events, but shaped by God into something of eternal significance. It is this that we will explore future sermons on the book of Revelation.
The Rev’d Dr Bruce Stevens is a supply minister at GUC 2022-2023.