Introduction to the Apocalypse of John   Leave a comment

Above:  Revelation Title (French)

Scanned by Kenneth Randolph Taylor from a copy of the Louis Segond revised translation (1910) of the Bible

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READING REVELATION, PART I

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Revelation 1:1-20

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Rev[elation] is widely popular for the wrong reasons, for a great number of people read it as a guide to how the world will end, assuming that the author was given by Christ detailed knowledge of the future he communicated in coded symbols.

Father Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (1997), 773

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…Revelation does not speak about our time, it does speak to it.

–M. Eugene Boring, Revelation (1989), 62

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THE APOCALYPTIC GENRE

Reading a book within its genre matters.

Consider the apocalypse in Daniel 7-12, for example, O reader.  The author wrote in the first century B.C.E.  He mostly wrote history as prophecy.  But when the author started writing about the future (relative to him), he got details wrong.  This was par for the course, given the genre.

Apocalyptic literature, written in images and symbols, is politically subversive of tyranny.  The genre offers hope during difficult times, encourages the faithful to remain faithful, and contrasts the world order with the divine order.  Apocalyptic literature uses the future as away to address the present.

I lay my theological cards on the table at the beginning of this project, O reader.

  1. I am a left-of-center Episcopalian.
  2. I am a student of history.
  3. I am an intellectual.
  4. I know the historical record of failed predictions of Christ’s Second Coming and failed identifications of the Antichrist.
  5. I tell you, O reader, that the rapture is a fiction from the mind of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882).
  6. I know that Darby’s Dispensationalism, popularized further in C. I. Scofield‘s study Bible, the “manual of fundamentalism,” remains a widespread interpretive system.
  7. I affirm that Christ will eventually return, but only once.  The rapture requires two Second Comings.
  8. I have no interest in prophecy conferences, but care deeply about loving like Jesus daily.

Apocalyptic literature has much to say about our present.  This content remains politically subversive.  That is fine.  I approve of subverting injustice, tyranny, slavery, economic exploitation, and needless violence.  They are antithetical to the Kingdom of God.

Apocalyptic literature is also optimistic.  In the darkness, the genre proclaims hope that God and good will triumph in the end.  Apocalyptic literature, therefore, stiffens the spines of discouraged, faithful people.  Good news of the deliverance of oppressed people doubles as judgment of the oppressors.  The genre invites us to ask ourselves:

Whose side am I on?

In summary, apocalyptic literature immediately moves past preaching and gets to meddling.

THE APOCALYPSE OF JOHN AND RESISTANCE TO TYRANNY

Certain passages of the Old and New Testaments, in their contexts, support submission to earthly authority.  The Apocalypse of John has none of that.  Revelation tells us that the Roman Empire was evil, antithetical to the Kingdom of God.  This is the message that made the text treasonous long ago and still inspires many people to resist tyranny.  One may read, for example, of Christian opponents of Apartheid (in South Africa) drawing inspiration from the Apocalypse of John, even as the national government prosecuted and persecuted them.  Today, in dictatorships, certain Christians are reading Revelation as they emerge in their struggles for justice.

REVELATION IN THE BIBLE AND LECTIONARIES

Revelation is a liturgical hot potato.  The major lectionaries include little of it.  The Eastern Orthodox lectionary excludes the Apocalypse of John.  The Orthodox Study Bible (2008) explains:

While seen as canonical and inspired by God, the Revelation is the only New Testament book not publicly read in the services of the Orthodox Church.  This is partly because the book was only gradually accepted as canonical in many parts of Christendom.  In addition, in the second and third centuries Revelation was widely twisted and sensationally misinterpreted, and the erroneous teachings brought troublesome confusion to Christians–a trend that continues to this day.

Genesis and Revelation constitute fitting bookends of the Christian Bible.  Genesis opens with mythology–the creation of an earthly paradise, followed by the end of that paradise–to be precise (Genesis 1-3).  Revelation concludes with a vision of God, having finally defeated evil once and for all, restoring that earthly paradise and establishing the fully-realized Kingdom of God (Revelation 21-22).

THE ORIGIN OF THE APOCALYPSE OF JOHN

Revelation came from 92 to 96 C.E., at the end of the reign of the Emperor Domitian.  Emperor-worship and the worship of the goddess Roma (Rome personified) were parts of conventional Roman patriotism and civic life.  The Christian refusal to participate in these cults made Christians seem unpatriotic at best and treasonous at worst.  Persecution was generally sporadic and regional at the time, but it was a constant threat.  “John of Patmos” (whoever he was) wrote to seven churches in commercial cities in western Asia Minor.

The elaborate symbolism–including numerology–in apocalyptic literature prevented the uninitiated–in this case, Roman censors–from understanding the texts.

SYMBOLISM AND MEANING IN REVELATION 1

The only instance in which to interpret any number in the Apocalypse of John literally pertains to the seven churches in western Asia Minor.

Revelation 1 plunges us into the symbolic aspect of apocalyptic literature immediately.  Stars (at the end of the chapter) represent angels and lamp-stands represent churches.  Earlier in the chapter, Jesus has white hair, indicating holiness.  His eyes, like a burning flame, pierce to the heart of all things.  Christ’s “feet like burnished bronze” are stable and steadfast.  His voice, “like the sound of the ocean,” is the convergence of the truth of God in the Hebrew Bible.  Jesus holds the Church–then a vulnerable group of house congregations–in his hand.  From Christ’s mouth emerges a two-edged sword (speech).  His face shines like the sun.  Christ is victorious, resurrected, ascended, and priestly.

The Roman Empire may have seemed to have had all the power and glory.  It did not.  The Roman Empire had executed Jesus.  Yet he had risen; his tomb was empty.  The power of the Roman Empire was nothing compared to the power of God in Christ.

That was treasonous, for, according to Roman coinage, the emperor was the “Son of God.”

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

OCTOBER 6, 2021 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF GEORGE EDWARD LYNCH COTTON, ANGLICAN BISHOP OF CALCUTTA

THE FEAST OF HEINRICH ALBERT, GERMAN LUTHERAN COMPOSER AND POET

THE FEAST OF HERBERT G. MAY, U.S. BIBLICAL SCHOLAR AND TRANSLATOR

THE FEAST OF JOHN ERNEST BODE, ANGLICAN PRIEST, POET, AND HYMN WRITER

THE FEAST OF WILLIAM TYNDALE, ENGLISH REFORMER, BIBLE TRANSLATOR, AND MARTYR, 1536; AND MILES COVERDALE, ENGLISH REFORMER, BIBLE TRANSLATOR, AND BISHOP OF EXETER

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