Revelation 18:1-24

Do you know what the word “apocalypse” means?  While in English it’s used to refer to a disastrous end of the world scenario, the actual definition of the word means “to reveal.”  The English title of the book of Revelation is taken from the first word of the book in the original Greek; “revelation” which is the word apokalypsis in Greek, or revelatus in Latin.[1] This word means, “that which is uncovered” or “that which is revealed.”  So, John is then writing what he believes to be a message revealing or unveiling a truth.

What many do not know is that John was hardly alone in writing something in this literary style, and claiming it to be an apocalypse.  New Testament scholar Bart Erhman writes, “Apocalypses were a popular kind of writing in ancient Judaism and Christianity.  Most apocalypses present a first-person narrative of revelations given by God to a prophet through an angelic mediator (and interpreter); these revelations are either of the future course of world events or of the heavenly truths that explain the realities of life on earth.  Normally they are given in wild dreams or visions loaded with bizarre (though sometimes transparent) symbolism; often they have a triumphalistic progression, providing hope that the horrible suffering of the present is simply a prelude to the glorious end that God has planned.”[2] In other words, the literature genre known as “apocalypse” was an accepted and common form of literature in the time in which the book of Revelation was written.

I have four different apocalyptic texts to read, I’d like you to figure out which one is from Revelation.

“For a period of time determined for them in proportion to their error, they will rule over the little ones. But after the completion of the error, the ageless one of immortal understanding will be renewed, and they (the little ones) will rule over those who are their rulers.  The root of their error he will pull out, and he will put it to shame, and it will be exposed in all impudence that it has assumed itself.  And such persons shall remain unchanged.”[3]

“I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale.  The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains.”[4]

“And these things shall come to pass in the day of judgment of those who have fallen away from faith in God and have committed sin: cataracts of fire shall be let loose; and obscurity and darkness shall come up and over and veil the entire world, and the waters shall be changed and transformed into coals of fire, and all that is in it shall burn and the sea shall become fire; under the heaven there shall be a fierce fire that shall not be put out and it flows for the judgment of wrath.”[5]

“’Let it therefore be handed over to the angel Tartaruchus, who is set over the punishments, and let him cast it out into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, and let it be there till the great day of judgment.’  And after these things I heard the voice of angels and archangels saying, ‘You are just, Lord, and your judgment is just.’”[6]

With these texts we can see that apocalyptical ideas were not limited to John and were somewhat common for the time.[7]  Author Elaine Pagels tells that “As war, uprisings, and economic turmoil threatened the stability of the Roman Empire, countless other people—Jews, pagans, and Christians—produced a flood of ‘revelations,’ many only recently discovered.”[10]Pagels notes that ever since the time John first wrote his book of Revelation “Christians have adapted his visions to changing times, reading their own social, political, and religious conflict into the cosmic war he so powerfully evokes”[16]

Seventy years after John wrote Revelation, earthquakes, plague, and outbreaks of violence convinced some they were living in the last days[11] and they assumed the book of Revelation to be written in reference to them.[12]

A few hundred years later, the early church father Athanasius assumed the book of Revelation to be written in condemnation of Christians with whom he disagreed about matters of doctrine.[13]

In the middle ages, the Black Death swept through Europe, causing many to see the plague as the arrival of the first horseman of Revelation.[14]

In 1948 the founding of the nation-state of Israel and then long Cold War were interpreted by some as signs of the end of the world.[15]

And, continuing with this trend more recently, it was the context of a fear of worldwide computer meltdowns from Y2k and the 9/11 terrorist attacks in which the Left Behind book series hit the best-seller list.

Social historians “have noted a pattern of increased apocalyptic expectation at the turn of centuries.”[9]  Whenever there is social or political crisis, people often become increasingly preoccupied with ‘end-times.’[8]

So I want to be upfront as I was last week with my rapture sermon.  I do not believe that the book of Revelation is meant to be a foretelling of an end of the world scenario yet to be fulfilled.  Let me explain why.

There are a few things we should keep in mind when it comes to interpreting Revelation. First, the John who wrote the gospel of John is not the same John who wrote Revelation. Though it’s often assumed, the analysis says otherwise.  The differences in writing style and genre are readily apparent and trained Greek scholars recognize a vast difference between the two in the language and grammar.[17]

Second, the book of Revelation is coded communication to particular audience in a certain historical context. In his writing then, John is revealing something to those who are paying attention, to those who can crack the code.  So while the language is written in an “otherworldly” code, it is referencing the “this-worldly” struggles that followers of Jesus were facing during that time.[18]

Third, “it is unwise to try and “crack the code” so to speak, and attempt to pin down to every symbol a certain meaning.  Author Richard Lowery advises, “Even for the audience in John’s time, the rich symbols of the visions had multiple meanings.  But it is important to remember…that (the symbols) are firmly rooted in the experience of first-century Christians.[19]” Neglecting the historical context in which the book was written is often the first and most costly mistake in interpretation. For example, though not every symbol in the book is clear, many scholars are unified in the understanding that the “Babylon” described in Revelation is actually a code name for Rome itself.  One author states that “to miss this correlation is to miss the main focus of the book.”[20] Just as others have done throughout history, John was interpreting his own troubled times as signifying a coming end of the world.[21]

When we ignore the references in the book to actual historical circumstances of the first century readers, we ignore the fact that this book was written for a particular people, who in the midst of suffering and persecution needed hope and inspiration.[22] We are, in a sense, disrespecting our spiritual ancestors.

Perhaps you’re wondering what the historical context was? Well, as you are probably aware, Christians lived during the time of the Roman Empire so logically, Christians spent much time analyzing how much—or how little—Christians should adapt to the culture at large.

This was a topic that was discussed often amongst the early followers of Jesus.  The Gospels tell stories seeking to illustrate the proper relationship of a follower of Jesus to the Roman Empire.[23] Paul also spent much time writing in 1 Corinthians about whether Christians should eat meat sacrificed to idols, whether Christians should take their disagreements to public court, and whether Christians should remain married to non-Christians.  In Romans 13 Paul writes that every Christian is to be subject to the governing authorities.  Writing in about 58 AD (C.E), Paul seemed to think there was a way to live in the world, but not be of the world; that Roman rule and Christianity could coexist.

But writing at least a generation after Paul and probably two or three, John noted that things in the Roman Empire had changed. An entire religion was created based on the worship of Rome and the emperors and all members of a city were expected to participate.[24] Further, all economic activity took place at Roman temples, therefore anyone who wished to buy or sell had to cooperate with this Roman religion.[25]  Anyone participating in the economic system was also in some ways legitimizing the Roman religion—or at least that’s how John felt.

John was furious that Rome was claiming their entire economic and political system was divinely sanctioned and it bothered him that in participating in it, Christians were actively contradicting their stated adherence to following the kingdom of God as Jesus taught. The Roman Empire’s “divinely inspired” system transferred wealth from the many poor to the elite few and created shortages elsewhere by its relentless demand for more, all enforced by a violent and brutal military machine. John found these values antithetical to the ways of God and God’s kingdom. So while John wrote in a time far removed from us, his situation is not so unlike our own.

Though Revelation isn’t written to predict our future, I think John has a three-fold message we should pay attention to. First John is trying to encourage Christians to stay faithful to the teachings of Jesus, second he is seeking to expose the true evil nature of the Roman Empire as he sees it by using scary and violent images, and third he is casting a vision of hope for when Jesus will come and set all things right and by that encourage Christians to stay faithful just a while longer.  But it’s that second point that I’d like to focus on for today.

Apocalypse from Flickr via Wylio

“Apocalypse” in Greek © 2006 Rich, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

That the point of all this terrifying and violent imageryis to get his readers to see that the Roman Empire is at its core diametrically opposed to the ways of Jesus and to shock them into changing their ways in order to avoid a future he isn’t so much predicting, but rather sees as inevitable if they do not change.[26] John is saying that staying on this track, continuing to do things Rome’s way will lead to destruction and death. Much like Eco-disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow, Wall*E, or Mad Max—movies meant to shock the audience in the hopes that they will change their ways in order to avert what the writers see as an inevitable environmental disaster—John is trying to get Christians to change their ways.

I think ultimately, John felt that a follower of Jesus could not worship on Sunday and in good conscience participate in the ways of the Roman Empire the other six days of the week.  John felt that a follower of Jesus shouldn’t worship God on Sunday but go out on Monday and buy cheap food thanks to slave labor on other parts of the empire.  A follower of Jesus shouldn’t worship on Sunday but then go out on Tuesday praising the safety and security of the empire while ignoring the brutality and violence the empire committed against all those who dared stand in their way.  For John there were no separate spheres of religion and politics and economics and relationships—they were all one.  A person’s commitment to Jesus was to be the filter through which all these issues we see today as separate flowed.

So I personally rebuff the notion that Christians should keep our relationships and our religion separate, our Christianity out of our politics, our adherence to God’s kingdom out of our economics.  I have no interest in a faith that only matters on a certain day of the week, in a certain building, at a certain time—And I think John would agree with me.  What we do on Sunday shouldn’t just stay inside this church, it should affect everything we do throughout the week; how we vote, how we treat our employees, how we interact with our loved ones, what we do with our money, and so on.  I’m not interested in a Sunday only faith, I’m interested in a Monday-through-Friday faith.

And further, I think if we asked those outside these walls, what they want is a faith that matters Monday through Friday, a faith that means more than just going to church, a seven day a week faith.  Let’s live that faith, let’s model that faith, let’s offer that faith.

A faith that matters Monday thru Friday—and Saturday too

 

 

[1] Lowery, Richard H. Revelation: Hope for the World in Troubled Times (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1994), 2.

[2] “Apocryphal Apocalypses: The Texts” in After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity, ed. Bart D. Erhman (New York: Oxford Press, 1999), 296.

[3] “The Coptic Apocalypse of Peter” in After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity, ed. Bart D. Erhman, 229.

[4] Revelation 6:12-16

[5] “The Apocalypse of Peter” in After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity, ed. Bart D. Erhman, 298.

[6] “The Apocalypse of Paul” in After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity, ed. Bart D. Erhman, 304.

[7] Ascough, Rirchard S. “A question of death: Paul’s community-building language in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18,” Journal of Biblical Literature 123, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 527

[8] Pagels, Elaine. Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the book of Revelation (London: Penguin Books, 2012), 73.

[9] Lowery, Revelation, 60.

[10] Pagels, Revelations, 73.

[11] Pagels, Revelations, 103.

[12] Pagels, Revelations, 107.

[13] Pagels, Revelations, 165.

[14] Pagels, Revelations, 37.

[15] Howard-Brook, Wes and Anthony Gwyer, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), 7.

[16] Pagels, Revelations, 173.

[17] Pagels, Revelations, 2.

[18] Lowery, Revelation, 14.

[19] Lowery, Revelation, 27.

[20] Snow Flesher, LeAnn, Left Behind: The Facts Behind the Fiction (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2006), 87.

[21] Pagels, Revelations, 24.

[22] Snow Flesher, Left Behind, 139-140.

[23] Howard-Brook and Gwyer, Unveiling Empire, 82.

[24] Howard-Brook and Gwyer, Unveiling Empire, 103.

[25] Howard-Brook and Gwyer, Unveiling Empire, 104.

[26] Rossing, Barbara, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004), 125-126.

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