For months, I’ve seen reactions to the idea that we would study this book for an entire year: people who have hated–or at least ignored–Revelation their entire lives since it “had nothing to do with them.” On the other end of the spectrum, you have people who get a little too excited: “Yeah! I love talking about Revelation! End times, baby!”
Woah. Throttle back there, bud.
So if you’re in the former group, don’t worry, you’re in good hands. Venerated theologians like Augustine and Luther ignored or actively disliked Revelation. If you’re in the latter group, that’s okay too, as there have been great, God-loving scholars who have dedicated their lives to this particular work–I think there is a way to be healthily enthralled with it. But I think we can find a middle path here: a way for us to view this book as something which was incredibly current for its original audience, and yet continues to speak to us today.
There are many potential ways into this third path, but I think if we could begin to see Revelation as a piece of artistically-minded literature that is centered on inspiring resistance in its original readers, we could grow in our understanding and application of this work itself, and our concept of Scripture and the Gospel as a whole. If we could begin to allow this book to shift some of our old ways of thinking, to comfort us in our affliction and challenge us in our comfort, we could begin to receive what I see the author trying to give to his fellow believers. To discover this approach though, we must first begin to ask ourselves what this thing is. What is this book?
As a part of the biblical library, Revelation is unique: it is neither an historical document or written law, such as we find in the Old Testament, nor is it poetry or wisdom literature (though it certainly contains both). It’s not a gospel narrative (though it does contain another angle on the character of Jesus), nor an epistle in the sense of those written by Paul, Peter, John, etc.
So what is this book?
First, I think we need to understand what we mean by the title, which comes from the Greek word ἀποκάλυψις [apokalupsis], which primarily means “to unveil” or “lay bare” that which has been hidden, or, as we have later translated it, to reveal–to see what before you had been unable to see. This is what the writer of the books sees himself as doing, since he says it in the first line of the work: “The revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave….” So one of the main things you can expect from this work if you properly attend to what it’s trying to do is perceive things which you had missed the first time around. This book, as we’ll see in a minute, is going to take nearly all of the major biblical themes and turn them on their head, flipping them upside down that you see them again in a new light, thereby unveiling as if for the first time the main thrust of the Gospel.
Some of those things that Revelation will turn upside down for us are:
Scenes of terror, which will be, if we allow them, revealed (apokalupto’ed) as scenes of encouragement and peace, calls for courageous perseverance rather than cowering fear.
Heaven is not someplace far off that God’s very few chosen people go away to in the here-after, but will be revealed as a place that comes down to earth, with gates open to all the peoples of the world, who bring their wealth into it in the here-and-now.
(The Anglican scholar NT Wright is fond of saying that “Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world.”) Heaven, which we have for so long understood as a place, will be revealed as a people at union with God, as almost indistinguishable from Him.
This is because we discover in Revelation that the Kingdom of God is revealed as being fundamentally inclusive rather than exclusive. Many scenes of apparent exclusivity with which Revelation is rife are, if seen from a particular vantage, incredibly inclusive because they deal with some of the other major themes of the Bible, such as:
Judgment, which is revealed again and again in Scripture as intended for restoration, rather than punishment. The justice and judgment of God is not oriented toward separation or retribution, but for healing and restoration, for re-inclusion into the community.
I recognize this can be a challenging concept as we have for so long understood God’s judgment to be the separation of the bad from the good, the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, who’s in and who’s out. But I believe the reality of the Gospel, particularly as informed through the lens of the prophets, shows a God who presents His people with a choice, and then pursues them if they choose the one that damages themselves or others. Yes, the purifying and purging fire of God’s pursuit can be painful, but it is intended to leave the dross behind rather than burn the whole thing up.
Ultimately, this is all because in Revelation we discover an overarching theme that resounds over and over, bell-like throughout all the infamously confusing and psychadelic scenes depicted in this book: Victory. But here we find this idea turned upside down as well.
Here we discover that to “overcome” or be victorious is unveiled as sacrificial death on behalf of our enemies. It is not God’s people slaying their enemies, bathing triumphantly in their blood, but the people of Christ laying down our lives for them as he did, asking for their forgiveness even as they themselves strike the killing blow.
This victory that Christ brings is a different sort of victory. It’s a different sort of peace. A different sort of heaven. It’s whole new way to see the Gospel, the Good News, as Christ’s rather than Caesar’s–an entirely different sort of “Lord,” “Son of God,” and “bringer of peace.” A new name under heaven which saves you. This is different than what the Romans (and every other kingdom before and since) were offering the world. This is the Kingdom of the Lamb who was slain, whose victory and Life are discovered in sacrificial death.