Lesson 1: An Introduction to Revelation

RevelationI decided to write a short series on Revelation after a number of onliners indicated that they were not aware that the book charted the fall of the Roman Empire. Once you begin reading it this way, it offers another perspective on the relation of church and state. Most of us think Paul’s instruction in Roman 13 is the biblical standard. He calls for obeying the authorities, because God instituted them to defend the church against evil. John says we should have nothing to do with them, because they are agents of Satan.

Obviously, our perspective on citizenship depends upon the situation. When Paul wrote around 55 AD the empire offered protection. Throughout Acts, Paul appeals to Rome after Jewish authorities threaten his life. When John wrote about 95 AD, the empire was persecuting the Church. John’s seven churches included members who were executed for their faith. A main theme throughout Revelation is the blessedness of the martyrs.

In order to appreciate its relevance, you have to let the book speak for itself. Most of us have allowed the crazies who impose their own political agendas on the text to color our understanding. Listen, instead, to what John writes in the first three verses:

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.

The first thing that jumps out at you is that John emphasizes these things will happen in the very near future. He says it twice: first that they will take place soon and then that the time is near. At different spots, he claims that it all will be over in 3 1/2 years.

The second eye catcher is that the book is to be read out loud. It is not a scholarly work to be studied, but an oral prophecy that is to be heard. The prophet John was not martyred but exiled for speaking against Rome. The authorities thought they could silence the prophecy if they removed the prophet. Remember, all prophets pictured themselves as channelers for God’s Word. John reports he was in the spirit on Patmos when a voice told him to write down what he heard, send a copy to his seven churches, tell them to read it out loud in one sitting, and “Shazam!” instant prophesy (1: 9-11). Rome is thwarted.

So too, we are to read the book out loud, letting its word-pictures speak to our emotions. I can testify how powerful that is; as I have heard modern day prophets speak their poetry at Pentecostal prayer meetings. They inspire much more than they inform. So too, John is encouraging his churches, not making predictions for ours. His message is “Do not be afraid, God is in control.”

The three verses also make clear that this is apocalyptic writing, a type of literature popular between 300 B.C. and 300 A.D. The first words, “the revelation of Jesus Christ,” uses the word “apocalypse” for “revelation,” which incidentally Paul does as well. An apocalypse takes the veil off reality, usually with the help of an angelic, heavenly guide.

It is here that some scholarship helps those of us reading Revelation in the 21st century. Those from the first had no problem understanding the apocalyptic language, because they were familiar with the terms and events. I had a friend who wrote to me in this style during the apartheid era. I immediately knew he was speaking of the South African army when he wrote, “The lion roared on the other side of the river last night but did not come across into our village. Keep praying for us.” On the other hand, someone living 2000 years from now who read today’s sports page might have no idea what it means when it claims the batter hit a fly, stole a base, or ran home. I’ll try to supply some of that scholarship as we take a very speedy look at the last book in the Bible.

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