I love Revelation. I always have, since the first time I read it in junior high school. I love it because it invites me into another world, a highly imaginative and vivid world of heaven and the abyss, of the heavenly court and the whore drunk with blood surrounded by her minions, of plagues poured out in a measured and inexorable rhythm, and of rhythmless, timeless pauses of refreshment as the redeemed are gathered to the Lamb and sing in endless praise. I love it because everything can be seen so clearly for what it is in that other world, whether good or evil, whether harmful or healthful. There is no doubt about what choices and actions will make for security and favor and what choices and actions will bring the doer down to the pit. I love it because it is full of scenes of worship – worship that goes on around the throne of God and of the Lamb day and night without rest – and it invites me into that worship as I join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, singing “Holy, Holy, Holy!” I love it because, in it, Jesus still speaks to his churches – not as a distant voice in Palestine, whose teaching is preserved in the Gospels, but as the Glorified Lord of the Church who walks among his churches and makes his voice heard by the Spirit.
I value it most of all because, as I let its visions open up my vision, it gives me a hope of seeing this world as God sees it. For that “other world” into which Revelation invites us is none other than this world around us, seen in another light, seen from the center of Light rather than from our limited perspective and all our all-too-easily deceived eyes. This is precisely what John wanted to do for his congregations, to let them see their world from God’s perspective, so that they might respond to it out of God’s vision for humanity and not as pawns of the prince of this age. He models thus the task of all Christian leaders – to get so close to God and to seek the mind of God so fully that they can see their situation in the light of God, and communicate this perspective to their sisters and brothers so as to identify and enable faithful action.
Revelation has been engaged from a number of, shall we say, diverse hermeneutical approaches. My own is based on a few basic presuppositions. First, John is not lying when he says that he writes to seven congregations in the Roman province of Asia. There are seven real communities of real Christians reading this prophetic word toward the end of the first Christian century, and Revelation speaks to them first of all. Second, Revelation does not so much seek to be interpreted as to interpret. This text is not a code to be broken, but a hermeneutical key to the world of those seven congregations in Asia Minor, to help them interpret their world in light of God’s just decrees.
Revelation accomplishes this by inviting these Christians to consider their situation as it is illumined by a number of broader contexts. John sets the hearers’ situation in the context of the witness of Scripture. Revelation is a delight because of its creative recombination of so many diverse Old Testament traditions, brought together to answer questions like: What is God’s character? What has been the record of God’s dealings with self-exalting empires in the past? What are the lessons of history, and how do they shed light on the players and dynamics in the hearers’ situation? John sets the hearers’ situation in the context of a large story, from Satan’s rebellion against God and defeat in the heavenly places to God’s forthcoming interventions, especially God’s judgment of all creation. John sets the hearers’ situation in the context of broader spaces. Often the Christian’s vision is blurred because “the world is too much with us,” too real, too loud, too imposing. John rips open the all-too-opaque skies so that the Christians can see heavenly realities again with equal vividness, and learn afresh that they are not a powerless minority, but moving in tune with myriads of angels and the company of the redeemed throughout time.
The first angel proclaims his “eternal gospel.” The people of the seven churches had heard announcements of good news before. The public euangelion or “good news,” for the same word was used in honorary inscriptions, greeted the accession of the emperor Vespasian after the civil war of 68-69 AD, which resulted in a restoration of peace and security as a new family took the seat of empire. But the congregations had gathered around a different, subversive “Gospel” that acclaimed Christ Jesus as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (
The angel cries out, “Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water” (
The first angel calls us to seek always to fall in line with that cosmic order, even as we are surrounded by the forces of chaos that break with God’s order in favor of demonic deviancy and disorder. He provides two good reasons why we should do se in every circumstance. First, God loved us into being and provides for our every need. As the Creator, to whom we owe our whole existence, God merits our honor and obedience in every moment, in every place. Second, God is coming as Judge, and he will hold all beings accountable for how they used this gift of life, whether to honor God or serve themselves. Keep God at the center; fix him there in your minds and hearts; fall in line with the angels and archangels in frequent and constant worship throughout the day and in the night watches, and you will be on sure paths for eternity.
The second angel follows close behind, announcing the inevitable fate of the City that set itself against God: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication” (
John will go on to describe Babylon at length in
“She has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication” (
I read an editorial recently that spoke of America’s intentions toward Iraq as nothing less than another step toward empire, establishing our abiding presence in the middle of a strong, anti-American bloc. The article reported on how, in the wake of the collapse of our only real competition, America has positioned itself internationally for empire. Although the whole point of this editorial was to awaken readers to the costs of maintaining empire, I have to admit that I found the prospect of a new American Empire strangely appealing, a vision that, for a moment, promised to bring order to this unruly world. If we run the world, our way of life will be all the more secure; perhaps we can even make wars to cease in all the earth. It’s an ideal that has the potential to arouse thymos. But in that thymos, the truth of God would be lost, for only God can bring order to this world; only God can make wars to cease in all the earth. As long as any nation has pretensions to empire, the Whore pours out her golden cup of abominations and intoxicates the minds of men and women.
Another angel will call to God’s people in Babylon later in this vision, “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues” (
A third angel follows the first two, declaring the high cost of compromise, of prostrating and prostituting oneself to a system that works against God’s purposes for humankind. “Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name” (
Many of our sisters and brothers in many countries across the globe accept dispossession, detention, even death rather than receive their society’s stamp of approval, whatever form that mark might take. Perhaps their witness will embolden us to a more radical obedience to God and to the Lamb; perhaps our cognizance of the consequences will ultimately motivate us to take seriously John’s call to cut ourselves loose from everything that our society approves and praises but that God has decreed, or Jesus taught, against. The third angel speaks a hard lesson, but one that also invites us – no, impels us – to think all the more fully “outside the boxes” of what our society has told us is acceptable for religious people, to be all the more ready to do the radical things Jesus calls his followers to do. The cost of cutting a deal with the world is just too great.
The course to choose is presented quite simply. Keep the commandments of God; keep faith with Jesus (
The United Methodist funeral service includes a prayer in which we ask God to help us “live as those who are prepared to die, and to die as those who go on to live.” The voice from heaven and the voice of the Spirit remind us this life and the all-too-visible world are not our final home nor our ultimate audience. We are invited to strut and fret our hour upon this stage not to please the worldly-minded, but to seek the applause of heaven. Keep God at the center. Sober up and repent from any and all collusion with the Babylons of the world. Refuse to pay the high price of a compromised discipleship. It is a call for endurance, but the only hope we have for abiding rest in the presence of God and the reward of deeds well done.
David A. deSilva is Professor of New Testament and Greek at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, OH.