Revelation is a very strange and strangely fascinating book. It goes by several names, including: The Apocalypse, The Revelation to John, the Apocalypse of John, and my favorite The Revelation of St. John the Divine, which you will find in the King James Version of the Bible. The author is also known by several names. In the first and second century CE, patristic writers tended to identify him as the apostle John, probably as a way of affirming the document as representative of the apostolic faith. By the mid 3rd century, however, this fell out of favor and a variety of monikers have been used for the author of Revelation over the centuries – names such as John the Revelator, John the Divine, John of Patmos, John the Theologian or John the Seer.
Revelation is the last book to have been accepted in the canon of New Testament works; this occurring in the year 419.
The author refers to himself as “a brother”, or, simply, as John. And the content of this book indicates he is a fellow Christian, a servant of Christ, who writes prophecy.
Revelation is the only complete work of the apocalyptic genre in the New Testament. It’s rich in symbolism and has a very complex structure. The images used are powerful in that they engage our theological imaginations in ways that are distinctive and often quite troubling. The book is unique among New Testament writings in the way it confronts – antagonizes, really – our world of common sense.
And yet, for all its complexity and confrontation, it is disarmingly simple. It begins with three Greek words that stand for: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ”, and its message has to do with what has been revealed about God in the historical event of Christ crucified and risen. It’s helpful to remember this when attempting to interpret Revelation. It’s so easy to be drawn into a kind of emotional reaction to what we find in the text. It’s filled with beasts, and an inconceivable book – a book that, the seals of which, once opened, announce great judgments on the earth. And there are great blaring trumpets that offer an imagined soundscape meant to reinforce the power of God‘s judgments. Most troubling, in some ways, is the presence of particular numbers – four, seven and twelve – that have special meanings. Over the centuries, some interpreters have painstakingly fashioned these numbers into a representation of God’s nature and intent for us that is not in keeping with what we find in the gospels. If Revelation is about God’s activity through Jesus – and if Jesus’ commands to love – be it in the two greatest commandments or in foot washing or any kind of loving and compassionate service – how can we interpret the text of Revelation to mean something other than love?
Revelation begins on Patmos, a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea. The risen Christ appears and dictates, to John, seven messages to the churches in Asia Minor. John is then transported to the heavenly world, where he beholds the throne of God, God who is praised as Creator of all. God’s right hand holds a sealed book, which is taken by the Lamb – and as the Lamb opens the seals, terrible judgments are inflicted upon the earth. The final seal, the seventh, unfolds into seven trumpets, the sounding of which brings even more intense judgments that precede the final coming of God’s rule. Visions follow – a woman and her son, the cosmic dragon, one beast from the sea and one from the land – transcendent figures all, who usher in a final series of judgments – the pouring out of seven bowls of God’s wrath – the wrath of the Lamb. Then, the evil imperial structure – think Babylon and the “great whore” – falls, causing lamentation on earth and rejoicing in heaven. Concluding visions portray God’s final victory: the return of Christ, destruction of all evil, the millennial reign of Christ and the martyrs, the transformation of the old creation, and, at last, the descent of the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem.
Sadly, this last book of the Bible has been rather awkwardly interpreted in much the same way as has the first book of the Bible. Whereas the Genesis creation story has been seen as literally true, much has also been made of Revelation in terms of literal truth or factuality – beasts and numbers and the like being seen as coded language that actually reveals what the end of the world will be like and when it will occur. Scholar Raymond Brown offers a tongue in cheek apology for this notion that, he claims, will scandalize some Christians. “God has not revealed to human beings details about how the world began or how the world will end.” Brown goes on to insist that Revelation be read as a whole, rather than picking out a few symbolic references and speculating about them. Furthermore, it’s very helpful to remember that this letter – the book is written in letter form – is addressed to the seven churches in Asia Minor, and its details and historical context pertain to the 1st century rather than the 20th or 21st century.
In our contemporary culture – a culture that idolizes science and quantifiable knowledge – apocalyptic literature endures as a witness to a reality that defies all our abilities to measure. It speaks of another world that escapes scientific indicators and, instead, tries to find some manner of expression about that world in symbols and visions – either cosmic information about how the universe works, or information about the world’s future destiny. John adopts this style and makes it a unique vehicle for the Christian message. The form and imagery are so strange to modern readers, but were not to John and his first readers. Think of the images used, for instance, in our political cartoons – where donkeys and elephants struggle for power. Or science fiction – beaming people form planet to starship. These don’t seem so bizarre to us – and neither did the beasts and trumpets and fantastical characters in Revelation appear as grotesque or weird to the ancients.
That transcendent world is not actually created by imagination – and this is key. Images serve as an entrée. Artists such as Pieter Brueghel (Bro’-yel), William Blake and Salvador Dali have understood this. Composers too – perhaps especially Olivier Messiaen, Ralph Vaughn-Williams and Frederick Delius – these were masters of creating this entrée. On a psychological level, Carl Jung sought entry to this world through symbols. And mystics, Christian and otherwise, have offered powerful insights – Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle comes to mind. We gain a deeper sense of personal identity here when we hear our scholar Raymond Brown tell us that, “Liturgy, properly understood, brings ordinary believers into contact with this heavenly reality.”
To a world that more and increasingly accepts only what we can see, hear and feel, Revelation is the final scriptural gateway to what the eye has not seen and the ear not heard. Revelation announces with enormous force that at every moment of human history – even the most desperate moments that cause us to lose hope, God is present and ultimately, triumphant. The Lamb standing as though slain, is the supreme symbolic guarantee of God’s victory, God’s care and deliverance, especially for the downtrodden and oppressed.
The Lamb. Where can we hear the Lamb’s “new song” being sung today?
Revelation makes shimmering, resonant connections between worship and God’s action – between liturgy and the world. Singing is a profound source of hope in Revelation. The poet Kathleen Norris offers this, “I am attracted to Revelation because it was Emily Dickinson’s favorite book of the bible, and because it takes a stand in favor of singing. In fact, it proclaims that, when all is said and done, of the considerable noises human beings are capable of, it is singing that will endure. A new song, if you can imagine, and light will be what remains. I find this cause for hope!”
The fifth chapter of Revelation introduces Jesus as the slain and risen Lamb whose praise is joined by “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea”. All heaven breaks loose in singing when the Lamb is found worthy to open the scroll. Revelation is loaded with such worship scenes. The hymns of Revelation are familiar from Handel’s Messiah, from Charles Wesley’s hymns, and from our liturgy (Holy, Holy, Holy). More than fifteen hymns are sung in Revelation, all giving encouragement to God’s people on earth from the perspective of heaven. No book in the bible has had more influence on Western music and art than Revelation.
John the Seer envisions a liturgy where animals and all living creatures join in uproarious songs of praise. Such a vision serves as a counter-measure to our overly humanizing tendencies which risk our missing out on the truly cosmic dimension of God’s praise. Our Eucharistic Prayer today and throughout Eastertide, draws from that cosmic dimension, reminding us of the witness of all creation.
The clearest part of the dreamlike message in Revelation has to do with allegiance. Only God and God’s Lamb Jesus are worthy of our worship. Not Roman emperors or any imperial power past, present or yet to come. Not even our power of reason and love of empirical evidence can replace God as object of our worship. John the Seer’s Apocalypse is an expose – uncovering the truth about the Roman Empire (and by extension, the empires we face). Like Toto in the Wizard of Oz in the climactic scene, Revelation pulls back the curtain to expose the fact that Rome is not the great eternal power it claims to be. Rome – the Romes of our lives – must NOT be worshipped.
One of the sacramental signs of the in-breaking kingdom of God in the early church was that its worship brought together those who were otherwise separated by a highly segregated society. Slave/free, Jews/Greeks, male/female, rich/poor. A rich cultural diversity came together to sing praise to the Lamb and the revelation of God’s reign over oppression. Though the consummation of God’s reign lies in the future, it begins in a multi-layered past, shaped in the present by our worship together.
Happily, Revelation mirrors that rich cultural diversity in some ways – taking its rightful place – perhaps especially in a community like this one – in such ways as to be yet another means of elevating ordinary believers into contact with a heavenly reality that defies linear expression – defies linear expression even as it touches us deeply and even inexplicably. In some ways I think Revelation is an invitation to release our need for understanding as we know it in the worldly world. To wrap ourselves up in the power of images – even unclear ones – and the power of song and praise to God.
Touched by a dream – the dream that is Revelation – we may be touched in deeper places – places that can and will become the foundation for new ways of enacting God’s holy work in the world about us.