This was quite a different reading from the previous two, begun in response to Graham Scott Brown’s challenge in January. For the record, I used the New American Bible this time. Frankly – and this is not related to the bible version chosen – after praying for guidance and being receptive during the reading, I was at first intimidated by the evil, the horror; I found I had to break off reading from time to time – for relief. I am glad I persisted.
Knowing the book’s shape now, from two careful readings aloud, I expected the opening of the seals and the blowing of trumpets – and all the dire and immediate consequences that follow from them. Jane Austen would no doubt describe these dreadful consequences as ‘unfortunate’ – but they cannot be lightly or politely dismissed: at a deeper level, that imagined ‘unfortunate’ comment rings true, anyway. What happens, happens as a result of humankind, and much of the created order, being corrupted by power, wealth, refusing to acknowledge Jesus and all the other whiles of Satan.
These consequences are direct responses to individual and collective sin: as the reader is invited, ‘Come up here and I will show you what must happen afterwards.’ (4:1b). That little word ‘must’ hit me hard: it comes at the start of Chapters 4 and 5 which lay before us an uplifting image of worship in heaven. To be possibly deprived of participation in that worship set me on edge as the fearful consequences are relentlessly rolled out in what follows. Negotiation and mediation, so much part of my teaching in Geneva, have absolutely no functions here.
The opening text of Revelation (1:3) says, ‘Blessed is the one who reads aloud…and blessed are those who heed its prophetic message in it, for the appointed time is near’. John, the author of Revelation who gives us these messages, writes clearly in light of a certainty that the end time is near. It is too easy to dismiss the extraordinary, apocalyptic images and events as being only germane to late-1st century Christian perceptions and forecasts, living under Roman and other persecution.
The messages go deeper. It helped, for example, seeing the now-heavenly martyrs’ vindictive language of revenge against their tormentors (6:9-10, 18:1-19:4) as a startlingly helpful way of imagining apostasy and worse being severely punished by God – it is saying nothing about the martyrs themselves adopting the attitudes of their persecutors.
A book in the New Testament canon is there because of its timeless application. Revelation is the same – but tougher going. This time through, I read it much more like that; paradoxically, it got easier as a result.
That said, I will pick up the NIV to read the book aloud once again – and, once again, with considerable trepidation. Perhaps it is just as T S Eliot wrote: ‘humankind cannot bear too much reality’.
More than with the previous readings, this fourth visitation to the extraordinary world of ‘The Revelation to John’ saw the whole book as a letter – not just the letters to the seven churches with which the book opens, but a letter to all of us, as imperfect followers of Christ. Read like that, it ‘fits’ into the New Testament as the culmination of the 22 letters that begin with Paul writing to the Romans. As a result, after finishing the book, I found myself drawn back to the letters dictated to John for the seven churches in ‘Asia’ and reading them over once more. Part of the reason for this is that our benefice is undergoing changes with Steve, our new incumbent: of the letters Jesus dictates directly to John (chapters 2 and 3), what specific questions arise for us? I did not reach any firm conclusions but the exploration was fascinating.
Each of the letters has three elements: a recognition of good things; mention of serious shortfalls or temptations; and the eternal rewards for the faithful.
- Among positive aspects of the churches – each being different – are energy and effort in church activities and worship, rejection of false prophets, temptations being avoided, not letting poverty diminish faith, martyrdom, and doing good deeds for the poor.
- The letters point out the several challenges being faced – a fading of love for God and his creation, toleration of the followers of Balaam or Jezebel within congregations, church activities that hide actual spiritual death, lukewarm faith and complacency (even apostasy).
- Providing the challenges are met, the variety of rewards are: to eat from the tree of life, to suffer no ‘second death’ after earthly death, enjoy secret nourishment from heaven, rule the nations (and be given the morning star!), to be clothed in white and be retained in the book of life, become citizens of the new Jerusalem, full fellowship with Christ and to sit on his throne.
Strikingly, the greatest gifts are reserved for the two weakest churches (Smyrna: poor but resilient; Philadelphia: small, beset by a rival, Gentile and Judaizing ‘synagogue’ but steadfast). Much of the rest of Revelation concerns what inevitably happens to the people for whom the challenges are either too much or simply rejected – or who have been tempted into sin by Satan. It is an observation on the book that can only be met with deep reflection and prayer for ourselves to be better servants of Jesus.
“Come up here”, Jesus says to John, “and I will show you what must happen in the future!”. For all that that sentence implies, I am most grateful to Graham Scott Brown for suggesting this four-fold reading aloud of Revelation. I know just a little of the book now – but a lot more than of other books that I thought I knew much better. Above all, to my surprise, it reads like a letter to me – which will richly repay yet more study.