The Book of Revelation
—end game ... October 20, 2008
In addition to completely rearranging our lives (as if that were not enough), this day and age of terror has also prodded us to renew our obsession with the Book of Revelation.
Properly sermonizing on this book, however tedious, has become absolutely necessary.
My basic attitude toward the Book of Revelation is very similar to an idea about God that has recently surfaced in social media:
I don't have a problem with God so much as His fan club.
The much hyped (and sorely overrated) Book of Revelation was most likely written (or at least inspired) by the fiery John the Baptist (or his circle).
The book itself has historic and literary value, not to mention some amazing visual spectacle, but it is certainly not to be taken seriously, as if it were a valid prophecy of what is actually going to take place on the stage of human history.
We occasionally hear someone (on television, in a movie or in real life) mention Revelations (in plural). In spite of the fact that this makes biblical scholars cringe, there is something to be said for it, for there are indeed two revelations in the book.
The first prophecy covers chapters 4 through 11; the second begins at chapter 12 and continues till the end of the book.
The first revelation never once mentions Jesus. We may fairly conclude from this that it was written before his public ministry, from as early as the 20s till the early 30s, making it the first book of the New Testament, not the last.
The second revelation does mention Jesus, but only barely. He is in no way given the recognition that is conferred upon him in the gospels. The writer (very likely not the same person responsible for the first revelation) appeals to his authority, to be sure, but not in a way that we might infer as messianic.
The very last piece of the Revelation puzzle - the letters to the seven churches - was most likely written during the last decade of the first century (by yet another writer), at a time when such churches actually existed.
The Book of Revelation truly exemplifies the message of that enigmatic sentiment about the first being last and the last first. Not only is the last book of the New Testament actually the first book, but the last part of that book to be written appears at its beginning.
If we were to detach the seven letters from the work, which we have every right to do, we would have in our hands a book whose place in the Bible is virtually intertestamental, not a part of the Old or the New Testament. The inclusion of the seven letters (written long after the revelations were penned) is the only reason that the Book of Revelation made it into the NT canon.
The examination of any biblical offering is most effectively managed with a brief study of its opening words. The remaining content does not much matter if the opening line states that the work is merely an allegory or a fable.
The Book of Revelation's introductory words do not say that it is an allegory or fable, to be sure, but they do say something that is just as unraveling as if it had.
The technique of carefully considering the initial passages of biblical texts was employed in my book The Jesus Trap, a critical reading of the Gospel of Matthew. The opening line of that gospel is,
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
What does this statement suggest? If we can get past our preconceived ideas about the New Testament, or Christianity in general, the words clearly state that the book is essentially a genealogy of some Jewish guy. (Could anything be more Jewish than the son of David, or the son of Abraham?)
If we persist with this approach, we soon find that the writer who expressed it did not exactly stay on course.
The Gospel of Matthew, in other words, is a hell of a lot more than a genealogy. It is filled with a virtual plethora of stories, vignettes, sermons and parables, most of which have nothing whatsoever to do with anything genealogical.
What does this mean?
If nothing else, it clearly suggests that we have the right to surmise that either the individual who began writing the book is not the same person who finished it (or at least filled it up with all that other content), or that (if it is the same person) he pretty much changed his mind about writing a genealogy, which was unquestionably his original intention.
Neither of these choices feels very satisfying. How can we have any respect for a writer who begins a book with a particular direction in mind but ends up taking it every which way?
(Or how can we truly consider that such a book might be the word of God?)
We would do well to take the same approach with Revelation, whose opening words are as follows:
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John: Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw. Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.
The purpose of the book is clearly stated (and if there is any book in the world that we would like to know the purpose of it is surely this one):
to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass
The book is offered as a sort of heads-up about what is soon (shortly) to take place. That is why those who read it are blessed, because being so warned they might be able to do something about all the bad stuff it foretells.
The biggest problem with this (an insurmountable problem if we are to be completely objective about it) is that it was written about 2,000 years ago.
It certainly does not feel as if we are going out on the proverbial limb by insisting that 2,000 years is significantly beyond soon, or shortly.
Couple this with Jesus' words in the Gospel of Matthew (also dealing with so-called end-time events) and the party is pretty much over:
I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
The generation that Jesus refers to in this verse is his own, the one he is addressing (He did use the word this in his statement, not that.).
Since that was also about 2,000 years ago, it means that approximately 50 generations have since passed.
Somehow it doesn't seem that anything further need be said about this troublesome book (which barely made it into the NT canon anyway).